A sea of green and gold transcended into Croke Park on Sunday for the first ever championship clash between Donegal and Kerry.
Most of the Donegal crowd had come in early, hoping that a decent game between Cork and Kildare would distract their minds off the impending fixture with Jack O’Connor’s team.
However, the Rebels battered and bullied Kildare and the game was over as a contest shortly after half-time, leaving the Donegal supporters with an agonising wait for the throw in.
The nerves were jangling as both sides took up positions. Colm McFadden drew first blood, much to the delight of the Donegal crowd with a sweetly struck point.
But two minutes later, Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper equalised with his first touch, to remind us all of the class that Kerry possessed.
Donegal had started brightly, and they were rewarded for their efforts in the eighth minute, when they raised the first green flag of the encounter.
McFadden’s sideline kick somehow found the net, with Kerry net-minder Brendan Kealy more concerned with Michael Murphy than the ball. Murphy added another point soon after to put Donegal four points up.
The Donegal crowd were ecstatic. Many had come to the GAA headquarters expecting a slow, tense start. This opening period certainly wasn’t part of the script.
Kerry were always going to dominate periods of the game and they kicked the next three scores to bring them back into contention.
McFadden responded with a much needed point for Donegal, but the Kerry forwards were struggling to make any impact on the scoreboard.
The pre match talk had been of Kerry’s attacking prowess, but they hadn’t encountered a defence like Donegal’s yet. They were tackled hard and put under huge pressure with every attack.
Kerry, the aristocrats of Gaelic football, were made to look ordinary by Donegal’s well-structured defence. Their shot selection was poor, and Donegal grew in confidence with every passing minute.
Then, the moment arrived that all Donegal fans had feared since the draw last Saturday. Colm Cooper got away from the tight reins of Neil McGee, and he combined superbly with Kieran Donaghy, to create a goal chance.
The ‘Gooch’ was straight in front of the goals, but opted to take his point instead of a goal, with the imposing Paul Durcan quick off his line.
“He’ll regret that decision by the end of the match,” noted one Donegal follower.
McFadden, who was having one of his best games in a Donegal shirt, added another point soon after to give Donegal a two point lead at half-time.
Donegal were not at their scintillating best, but the game was still going their way.
“I’d have snapped your hand off if you offered me a two point lead at half-time, before the match,” said one happy supporter.
However, the majority of Donegal folk were still wary. This was Kerry, after all. The county with 36 All-Ireland titles, could make a two point lead disappear in a matter of seconds.
The heavens opened for the second half, making conditions very difficult. Leo McLoone drove through the Kerry defence and fired over, but Kerry soon brought Donegal’s advantage back to one point.
An announcement stated that 56, 191 people had paid for seats at Croke Park, but the majority were only using the edge of them, as Donegal started to pull away from Kerry.
Murphy and McFadden scored points, before Christy Toye came on and as always he left his mark with a nice point.
By the 65th minute, Donegal were six points up and cruising.
“We have them now,” said one supporter, who had already turned his attention to the forthcoming semi-final. Some Kerry fans had seen enough, and left early to beat the traffic.
After last year’s epic quarter-final victory over Kildare, many Donegal supporters would have gladly seen the game peter out tamely.
However, Kerry showed exactly why they had won Sam Maguire four times in the last decade. They showed remarkable character and resolve to come back at Donegal.
Donaghy scored a soft goal for the Kingdom, and then Paul Galvin reduced the deficit to two points. The nerves seeped back into the Donegal crowd.
Donegal couldn’t get possession in midfield, and the ball just seemed to be constantly heading back towards their goal.
An Anthony Maher point set up a tantalising finale. Donegal supporters held their heads in their hands, as they could feel the semi-final spot slipping away.
Patrick Curtin had a chance to level the game, but his shot drifted wide. All eyes were on the clock. There was still time left, Donegal needed another score.
They needed someone to show leadership and composure, and Karl Lacey was exactly the man we wanted in that situation.
He split the posts to put Donegal two up. Kerry kicked in a long ball in hope of getting a goal but Donegal swallowed up the ball and Marty Duffy blew the final whistle, much to the relief and satisfaction of the Donegal followers. The Kerry fans were feeling as blue as their shirts.
A rousing rendition of ‘The hills of Donegal’ rang around Croke Park, as the players, management and supporters celebrated one of Donegal’s greatest victories.
The rain poured down as we left the stadium, but nothing could dampen our spirits, as we started to look forward to a semi-final meeting with Cork in three weeks time.