Nineteen years had come and gone since Donegal had last won an Ulster championship before the class of 2011 finally bridged the gap.
Michael Murphy was the first Donegal captain since Anthony Molloy in 1992 to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones on what was one of the high points in Jim McGuinness’s eventful first year at the helm.
Donegal were at a low ebb when the Glenties man took over. The 2010 vintage were the first side evicted from the championship before the month of June had even concluded and confidence was rock bottom as some senior players privately considered their futures.
McGuinness had shown his expertise by helping his club side Naomh Conaill to a first senior county championship in 2005 and then five years later took an unfancied Donegal U-21 side to an Ulster championship and All-Ireland final.
A solid league campaign in the National Football League Division Two laid a solid foundation. Donegal had shown resolute sparks to come from eight points and a man down to secure an unlikely point against Sligo on opening night and there was a flourishing in fine away wins in Tyrone, Derry and Meath before Laois were topped by 14-man Donegal in the Croke Park final.
McGuinness had long since maintained the league was a distant second on the priority list behind championship and Donegal opened with a rather untidy but ultimately comfortable 1-10 to 0-7 win over Antrim at a wintry MacCumhaill Park.
The style of football against a side that didn’t want to play football was roundly criticised but for Donegal, it was a first Ulster championship win since Brendan Devenney’s fortuitous last minute winning goal against Armagh in 2007.
That win came at a time when McGuinness had yet to fully reap the positives of the group, with many of the students will preoccupied with exams in mid-May but they were back for the visit to Cavan in June.
Donegal survived a refereeing injustice that particular afternoon when Michael Murphy was sent off – a decision that was afterwards rescinded – to post a fuss-free 2-14 to 1-8 victory at Breffni Park.
The first real acid test came against Tyrone in Clones and the three-time All-Ireland winners raced into a commanding five-point first half lead. McGuinness told his players not to panic and with many younger legs they eventually reeled in the team managed by Micky Harte before sealing the 2-6 to 0-9 win with late goals from Colm McFadden and Dermot Molloy.
Since 1992, Donegal had lost five Ulster finals and McGuinness had been involved in three of those defeats. Derry, in 1993 and 1998, were two of the sorest losses and it would be team managed by John Brennan who would contest the final and thus derail the 12-year Tyrone-Armagh axis on the provincial crown.
Donegal were evolving well and with Murphy plonked in his natural habitat on the edge of the square, overcame their neighbours with a fine performance to win 1-11 to 0-8.
All too often Donegal had stood and watched opposing captains lift the trophy. The heroes of 1992, who of course went onto become the first and only Donegal team to win the All-Ireland, will always be just that – heroes. But it was no harm to see the contemporaries in Ulster add to their triumph.
Of course there was drama to follow. Kevin Cassidy’s winning point gainst Kildare in a 1-12 to 0-14 win with the penultimate kick of the All-Ireland quarter-final was, for many people, a memory more nourishing than the Ulster championship win.
Then, of course, there was the All-Ireland semi-final and Dublin. McGuiness is perhaps demented hearing about how his ultra-defensive tactics were the bane of the sport that sunny afternoon. He almost pulled off one of the biggest strokes in the game’s history only to lose 0-8 to 0-6, though, breaking no rules as he did so.
That’s last year, however, and Donegal’s name is etched into the history books as Ulster champions, 2011.
It counts for little all the same. On Sunday, when the ball is thrown into the air for the first time, it’s the one stage in the year when all teams are equal. It’s up to Donegal to prove they’re a cut about the rest.