If there is one player in the Donegal panel that has been re-born under Jim McGuinness, then it is Ryan Bradley.
The Buncrana man was an underage prodigy, scoring one of the best goals ever in an U-16 final against Naomh Conaill ten years ago in a man of the match performance.
After that Ryan seemed to drift from the Donegal scene. Employed in the building trade, he was located out of the county in Kildare as a 17-year-old and football was off the radar.
However, with so much talent, it was inevitable that he would come under scrutiny and back in the Donegal set-up. But despite showing up well over a number of years, the Buncrana man just couldn’t make the big breakthrough.
But in 2011 under Jim McGuinness, it has been a different story. An ever present from day, Ryan made his first championship start against Antrim and like the U-16 county final of ten years earlier, he won the man of the match award.
“It has been hard to get into the team in the last few years. I got the chance at the beginning of this year and put the head down and worked away.
“Jim has shown the belief in me; I was willing to do the work and I got into the team at the start of the year and have stayed there,” says Ryan, who has fond memories of that goal against Naomh Conaill (with his left foot). He would obviously like to score a goal in Croke Park against Dublin, but adds: “As long as Donegal win I don’t care who scores,” says Ryan.
Ryan feels that he was never fit enough to do himself justice in other years, but still went to games when off the panel. “It was hard watching, but I was never fit enough. Thankfully this year I’ve got my chance.”
This year has also seen a big change in the way Donegal set up for games. “Everyone was saying Donegal had a good style of football but Donegal weren’t winning championship games. We just tried a style of play that would help us and so far it’s worked.
“We worked at it. The whole players bought into his way of thinking and I don’t see why we should change it. If it’s working, we will keep doing it.
“There is a lot of tracking back and defending but when you’re getting results, everybody believes it’s the way forward. A lot of people don’t like and say it’s puke football, but we don’t think it’s puke football,” says Ryan.
Asked about the negative reaction to the Donegal style on The Sunday Game after the win over Antrim, he said he did not expect the reaction.
“Definitely not, especially after winning our first game in four years. We were over the moon. It wasn’t a great game of football but I think their reaction was over the top.
“It was my first championship start too. It didn’t really bother us what they said. We knew we could play better and we have played better since. As long as we got the win, it was that first win off our back,” said Ryan.
The analysis of that game saw manager Jim McGuinness hit back at the panellists, especially in the way they treated Ryan’s man of the match award.
“Jim was very defensive of me, probably because of the man of the match award, but he was defending the whole team more than anything else, and people taking a hand at us. We knew it was over the top but we let it go after that.
“I didn’t really bother me at all,” said Ryan
“We knew we were comfortable enough beating Antrim and the same against Cavan but we knew once we got to meet Tyrone in the semis it would be a totally different game. We probably didn’t play as well as we can in the first half but Tyrone were flying in that half and should have punished us more.
“We were lucky to go in two points down. We were just happy enough winning games.”
As regards the ambitions of the panel at the beginning of the year and winning the Anglo Celt, Ryan said: “It would be in the back of our heads a little bit but Jim would not let us think like that. He would get us focusing on the next game.”
Ryan has memories of the last Donegal, Dublin championship meeting in 2002 especially as the Buncrana club were also involved. “My own clubman (Paul McGonagle) was playing in that game. I wasn’t involved and there was a wee bit of indiscipline after the drawn game. It was a good game of football and hopefully this can be as good and hopefully we come out on the right side this time.”
The Buncrana man feels that Dublin are a very good team. “They were good, strong and fast and they had a good defensive set up as well, so they have. They got a lot of space but they punished that space. They will definitely be hard to watch with the two Brogans and Connolly; they are super footballers, very sharp and very strong.”
Bradley feels that Donegal are going well also and gaining in experience so that they don’t panic when going behind in games. “We would never think like that. Against Tyrone we were five points down and came back. The belief is there to come back. Kildare we were three points down coming into extra time and we kept clawing back.
“I think most of the boys didn’t put the heads down. We kept believing we could win it; kept believing we would get the next score. Thankfully we did get the last two scores.
“It’s down to Jim putting the belief in us; making us believe we can do it. When you have 15 or 20 men with that belief; you have to be fit also. That was probably the highest level of fitness any Donegal team has ever been at in a number of years.
“There’s a great togetherness there and everybody backs up each other and everybody respects each other in the team,” says Ryan. “It has been a great, winning league and Ulster but we want to win more.”