When you hear the optimistic stadium announcer requesting supporters to please refrain from entering the pitch at the full-time whistle the seeds of devilment are immediately sown.
In fairness, the odds of that happening would’ve been larger than Darren Clarke winning the Open. But around the time Clarke was waltzing down the 18th fairway with a three-shot lead at Royal St George’s, back at St Tiernach’s Park referee Maurice Deegan called for the ball and the surge began, whether through open gates or over fences.
After all, it’s been too long a wait. The scale of the 19-year interlude could be measured on the receeding hairlines starting to appear on some of the members of the 1992 Ulster and All-Ireland winning teams, none of whom would have been even the tiniest shade of disappointed to see their provincial crown finally succeeded.
As Martin McHugh noted on the BBC commentary, it would have been unfathomable to suggest to him almost two decades ago with Donegal at the height of their powers that the next team to win Ulster would include a son of his. Meanwhile, on The Sunday Game, Pat Spillane would teeter with the possibility of giving Donegal a word of credit, although the asterex was still embedded and he managed to squeeze in another mention of the Antrim game. But worry not, if Kerry win an All-Ireland we can all remark that they weren’t great against Clare in their Munster championship opener.
It’s unlikely any of the 1992 vintage, or indeed Spillane or Kevin McStay, would be familiar with Jedward but thanks to the lipsticked duo’s performance on the Diamond in Donegal Town earlier in the summer the stage was, literally, set for Jim McGuinness and Michael Murphy and the rest of the Donegal backroom team, staff and players on Sunday night. Every cloud has a silver lining, eh?
Earlier on Sunday, Karl Lacey and Kevin Cassidy spoke about this being Donegal’s time. All too often in recent campaigns, Donegal would approach an Ulster final hoping of winning. Frequently rehashed and all as the cliché is about failing to prepare and preparing to fail, the words do possess significant weight. Cassidy likened it to sitting an examination. This time we believed.
And although the Donegal panel’s levels of confidence were never permitted to spill into arrogance as a consequence of McGuinness’s grounded approach, there was good reason to believe. With only Brian McEniff having won a provincial championship before, in his case five and an All-Ireland, now McGuinness has scribbled his name beside his former manager in permenant marker. When Murphy was sharing his post-match thoughts, a jubilant supporter could be heard barking “McGuinness for President!”
Derry were admittedly weakened by the absense of the Bradley brothers, Paddy and Eoin, who were both suffering cruciate injuries. That robbed Derry of their cutting edge in the forward line against a Donegal side who have now conceded an average of five points from play in four games of championship football.
There was also the tale of two penalties, one that was awarded and one that wasn’t, although criticising Deegan for being 50 yards away from the incident that saw Murphy clattered by Danny Devine in the Derry goal. Surely the naked eye can function from that range?
Regarding the spot kick, Murphy thanked an even greater power than himself - “I just put the ball down and let God guide it!” It made him the first Donegal man since McGuinness, nine years ago against Armagh, to score an Ulster final goal for Donegal.
At the other end, Neil McGee wasn’t penalised for a charge on Emmet McGuckin late in the game, a decision which certainly rankled the wrinkled John Brennan. Although the wily Derry manager might’ve had a case, when the tills were totted up for the end of day takings, Donegal were the better team in a larger gulf in two different penalty calls solely suggested.
Michael Hegarty had one of his finest afternoons in a county jersey, adding substance to his undoubted style, and ran Murphy close in the awarding of the man of the match award. Neil Gallagher filled the centre-field void left by the calf-strained Kevin Rafferty, while Ryan Bradley, Anthony Thompson, Lacey, McGee and Colm McFadden, who scored a champagne point at the end, were all excellent. In fact, no Donegal player was less than seven out of 10.
But it’s on the line where Donegal have improved immesurably. McGuinness and Rory Gallagher have transformed a panel that was much more disillusioned than an MJ Tierney tweet in their first season in charge. Should the Naomh Conaill clubman continue to develop, the possibilities will continue to unravel.
Seeing your own people on the pitch like on Sunday warms the heart after so many failures, some of which were close and others large. McGuinness made a lovely point when he said the thing that brings him the most satisfaction from the job he does so intensely is seeing smiles on people’s faces. And on the pitch where we weren’t initially welcomed but opted to refrain from refraining, there were plenty of them.
McGuinness’s delight at the final whistle, as he waded through the crowd on the pitch to congratulate his players was palpable. All the little details, which are often recorded but never should be underestimated, combined to produce a huge result.
But with the Anglo-Celt cup back in the county and a trip to Croke Park on the horizon, this win doesn’t mark the end of a journey, but hopefully the beginning of one.