DONEGAL’S history-making footballers return to training tonight following their first ever retention of the Anglo-Celt Cup.
Jim McGuinness’s side produced a fantastic second half display to see off Down 2-18 to 0-13 in the Ulster SFC final at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones on Sunday. The win also meant Donegal are the first Ulster side to win the provincial championship in successive years having to come via the preliminary round.
Leo McLoone and Frank McGlynn scored a goal apiece in each half, while there were also fine contributions from Paul Durcan, Declan Walsh, the excellent Ryan Bradley at centre-field, Colm McFadden and Mark McHugh, who was awarded numerous man of the match awards.
“It’s fantastic and it’s reward for the players who have put in a massive effort over the last 24 months,” McGuinness, who lost three finals as a player, said in the immediate aftermath of Donegal’s seventh Ulster title win. “If we won by a point I’d be just as happy. Hopefully now we can refocus quickly as it’s going to be a tough draw no matter who we face.
“It means absolutely everything. I experienced some hugely disappointing days down the years when I played for Donegal and I can see that today on the faces of the Down players. I can totally empathise and sympathise with them because I’ve been there myself.
“It’s not a nice place to be but the reality is we have to go and try and win the game and somebody has to lose the game. For me, days like today are every bit as enjoyable as when I used to be out there playing.”
Thoughts now turn to the All-Ireland series where the fourth round qualifiers will be played this weekend to see who joins Donegal and the other provincial winners - Dublin, Cork and Mayo - in the last eight. On Saturday, Down face Tipperary at Cusack Park in Mullingar, Kildare take on Sligo at Dr Hyde Park in Roscommon; the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick plays host to Kerry’s match against Clare and Meath face Laois at Tullamore’s O’Connor Park. The draw will be made at 8.35am on Monday on RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland.
Donegal can play any of the sides who come through those qualifiers with the exception of Down, as last eight ties cannot be a repeat of provincial finals. The quarter-finals will take place in Croke Park on Saturday, Sunday or Monday of August Bank Holiday weekend. The semi-finals still retain the old structure so Donegal know if they repeat last year’s achievement and make the last four, on Sunday, August 25, they will take on Munster champions Cork or the side that beats them.
With an estimated Donegal support of a figure approaching 20,000 in Clones, there was a colourful pitch invasion after Joe McQuillan’s final whistle as Michael Murphy held the trophy aloft.
“It just shows what it means to the people of Donegal,” Mark McHugh said after the game. “They came out to support us last year but that was just crazy out there today. It means everything to us, the players, the management. It’s a great day for Donegal football.
“I was just accepting the man-of-the-match award on behalf of the team because there was 19 players out there who played extraordinary football. We’re just going to have to get fully focused for the next game now.
“Whoever it is we’re going to go into Croke Park a confident team. We feel we’ve worked hard enough and deserve to be there.
“Hopefully we can push on to bigger and better things. We were disappointed last year after the Dublin match but whoever we get this year hopefully we’ll be a different team. Hopefully we’ll have gained experience and push on to that All-Ireland final.”