Amid the hysteria at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones on Sunday afternoon as Donegal celebrated their first ever retention of the Ulster championship as only they can, manager Jim McGuinness got a quiet chance to reflect.
The difference in Donegal since he took over just two short years ago is palpable and although he will always be diplomatic when spreading the credit, his influence has been the driving force behind the successive championships.
McGuinness admitted Donegal were not at their best in the first half, playing against the wind but still took a one-point lead, 1-5 to 0-7, into the break. In the second period Donegal opened up and were full value for their comprehensive 2-18 to 0-13 victory as Down were hammered in the crossfire.
As a player, the scraggly haired McGuinness was an Ulster final loser on three occasions at the same ground. Those experiences lingered hard and were tough to shake off but days like Sunday have certainly gone some way towards atonement.
“It means absolutely everything,” McGuinness said as he leant back against the tunnel wall in Clones. “I experienced some huge 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.
“We felt before the game, particularly when Michael Murphy went up for the toss and we knew we would be playing against the wind, if we were there or thereabouts by the break we would have a chance. Being a point up at half-time calmed the dressing room and we knew we were
where we wanted to be. There was a lot of unforced errors and uncharacteristic errors in the first half but we were reasonably happy.”
Donegal missed Neil Gallagher in that opening half. The Glenswilly centre-fielder tore ankle ligaments in a club game and his absence meant Donegal had to plan without the primary ball fetcher. Eamon McGee also failed a fitness test on Saturday evening due to a tight
hamstring, thus robbing them of further physicality.
“We added a bit of physicality in the second half with Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye and that give us a good base against Kalum King, Ambrose Rogers and Liam Doyle. We went toe-to-toe and that laid a foundation for us to push on from. We’ve worked hard to develop a
squad and you could see that today.
“Getting a big score is nice for the supporters but for us it was just a matter of getting over the line. Neil Gallagher has improved over the last few days so he might soon be back on board.”
Donegal’s rapid evolution means they might be a team that few will wish to be paired with on Bank Holiday weekend. From the stern defensive side that made an All-Ireland semi-final last season, they continue to flourish in 2012, re-writing the history books to become the first side ever to retain the Ulster championship having had to negotiate their way from the provincial round.
“It’s fantastic and it’s reward for the players who have put in a massive effort over the last 24 months,” McGuinness added. “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. That’s for another day though.”