Donegal’s time has come once more

The time is almost upon us. The four-week countdown has flown by even though it has been the busiest period of my time working in this business.

The time is almost upon us. The four-week countdown has flown by even though it has been the busiest period of my time working in this business.

For Jim McGuinness and Donegal, the next few days will be a nervous time as they hope to get through all the final preparations without sustaining any late niggles.

It has been a rollercoaster summer. Back in May, expectation of landing an unprecedented second Ulster title in successive years was reasonably high, although having to do so from the preliminary round and with Tyrone lying in ambush tempered matters.

Even now, looking back on the campaign, that Saturday evening in Clones against Tyrone was probably Donegal’s greatest challenge and the Red Hands will probably still be the team to beat next year.

But once Tyrone were toppled (again), the expectancy levels took a turn skywards once more and they have been on that curve ever since.

The level of continued improvement that has been achieved by Donegal in 2012 under Jim McGuinness has been quite remarkable. Many would have thought that they had reached their zenith in 2011, but the new-look Donegal, who are now able to streamline attack and defence, has been a joy to watch. The improvement has been there to see as a progression, with the win over Cork hailed as the greatest display by any Donegal team.

And yet, both players and management are striving for further improvement. There’s no doubt there were some gaps early in the semi-final against Cork and there were the late goals in both the Kerry and Cork games.

But overall, it would be very hard to quibble with those two displays, both in front of big crowds in Croke Park and both at the business end of the championship when defeat banishes the losers to the dustbin.

We now travel on Sunday to meet Mayo in the final - a novel pairing, but novelty will have little airtime in either camp as they prepare for the biggest game of their lives.

With Donegal having the longer run-in (four weeks as opposed to Mayo’s three), the hype has been much bigger for us. That hype almost lost the run of itself in the first week. It is good to celebrate, but it must be controlled. Nothing was ever won in the build-up and having more flags and bunting will not count for anything on the Croke Park scoreboard.

We should, however, be very proud of the panel of players that will represent our county on Sunday next on the biggest day in the football world in Ireland. Jim McGuinness, Rory Gallagher, Maxi Curran and the panel have been outstanding ambassadors for the county and no matter what the result on Sunday, we should never forget that.

We go into the game as favourites - maybe not as hot as some analysts are saying - and it is a tag that can be a burden. But with Jim McGuinness at the helm, there is no way that I can see the team being under any illusion as to what lies ahead.

Mayo may have had a much shorter run to the final - having played just four games so far - but they have shown in the last two games, the quarter-final and semi-final against Down and Dublin respectively, that they are a serious outfit.

Most pundits felt that without Andy Moran, they had little chance against Dublin, yet they blew the reigning All-Ireland champions away with a blistering period before half-time when they popped over points from all angles, even though they were playing into The Hill.

The similarities between Mayo and Donegal are many, and not all about football. Both counties have been ravaged by emigration and both can boast a rugged Atlantic coastline.

Both have also risen from the ashes of qualifier defeats in 2010. Donegal’s may have been a tad more remarkable as they have had a much tougher passage each year to win back-to-back Ulster titles, but nonetheless, James Horan’s Mayo did the same in Connacht and didn’t receive the same recognition.

Both managers are of the new breed, building teams that are based on the collective rather than the individual. That Conor Mortimer was allowed to leave without a fight underlines the way that Horan wants Mayo to play.

In Donegal captain, Michael Murphy will lead from the front; and from midfield or half-back if he has to. Colm McFadden will be expected to win his own ball and if he does that then Donegal can expect a rich harvest.

If young Patrick McBrearty can get his first effort on target, he has the cockiness and confidence to make it a final to remember.

What has been particularly gratifying as a supporter of Donegal this year has been the emergence of a new player vying for the man of the match award each week. Ryan Bradley was immense in games in Ulster; Mark McHugh has been consistent; Anthony Thompson was on fire against Cork. It took some time for Leo McLoone to find his niche, but you couldn’t imagine a Donegal forward line now without him.

Paddy McGrath has probably been Donegal’s most improved player and his workrate has to be a lift for his teammates. For the McGees, Eamon and Neil, it must be special for brothers to be side by side in an All-Ireland final. They will be the first Gaoth Dobhair men in that position, but then Frank McGlynn will be doing the same for Glenfin . . . so much to celebrate.

Paul Durcan’s role in the team goes much beyond being a shot stopper . . . and he is good at that too. His ability to vary kick-outs and find his target with 60 yard kicks that are similar to Tiger Woods’s stingers are one of the many factors in Donegal’s success story.

Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher in the middle of the field will have formidable opponents in Barry Moran and Aidan O’Shea, but they have been magnificent this year. Kavanagh was captain for the opening game in the absence of Michael Murphy and has shown that sort of leadership that all teams need. Neil Gallagher, in his own quiet way, has become one of the most important cogs in the set up and we would settle for a repeat performance of his outstanding display against Cork.

We would settle for the same also from the outstanding player in Donegal football for quite a number of years, Karl Lacey. If ever a footballer was deserving of playing on the big day, then it is the Four Masters man. He was made for days like this.

Speaking to Aidan Doherty this week about the game, the Twin Towns man came up with a quote which I hadn’t heard yet. I had heard people say it’s a 20-man game nowadays, but Aidan says it’s 20 v 20 on Sunday.

And that is surely true. Jim McGuinness has been very quick to make changes and whether he starts or is held back, David Walsh is now one of the most important players of the Donegal set-up. It’s hard to believe that he is also the oldest player in the panel with his teenage profile. For much of the season he appeared as a 24-year-old in the match programmes!

The St. Michael’s trio of Christy Toye, Martin McElhinney and Daniel McLaughlin must be ready for action also on Sunday while the likes of Declan Walsh and Marty Boyle will also be on stand-by for defensive cover.

The final build-up will be tense and the players, more than anybody, will be wanting the hours and minutes to fly by.

A word of warning to the fans . . . take it easy on the roads both going and coming from the game. And for God’s sake, respect the opposition when they are taking frees. For a brief moment at the start of the semi-final against Cork there was the chance that some supporters were going to get involved in that behaviour, but thankfully it dissipated. If it starts on Sunday, show leadership on the terrace or in the stand and tell them to desist.

And so to the match . . . the gut feeling is that Donegal are good enough to win, but only if they can match their workrate of the previous two games in Croke Park. If they do that and not allow Mayo to get into their point-scoring stride, they can make it a day and a year to remember for all Donegal people.

The team are following in the footsteps of 1992 . . . even if it is 20 years afterwards. That team showed that if you have the right attitude on the day then everything his possible.

Let’s hope Donegal people are celebrating once more on Sunday evening in Croke Park and all over the world.