Just for a second on Sunday afternoon in Croke Park as time wore thin Donegal manager Jim McGuinness thought his side had booked their place in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Donegal led the 36-time All-Ireland champions by a relative comfortable six-point margin, 1-11 to 0-8, and it seemed as though the rollercoaster had taken another swerve upwards. However, Kieran Donaghy palmed home a goal that changed the entire atmosphere in the cauldron of Croke Park and Paul Galvin and Anthony Maher shaved the Kerry arrears from six to one with a minute to play.
At that stage, as Sir Alex Ferguson once said, it was squeaky bum time but with the flow heading towards Hill 16 and a presumable Kerry leveller, Rory Kavanagh won a match-winning turnover and set Karl Lacey away to score the insurance point. Martin Duffy’s final whistle brought with it jubilation tinged with relief.
“We knew that Kerry were going to come back very strong at us at some stage,” McGuinness said afterwards. “They’ve won what they have won for a reason and their composure and their class came through at the very end.
“Up to that point we were very happy, five up and then six up, and at that stage I didn’t think that it was going to come from Kerry for a moment. Then, the goal changed everything.
“A goal is a huge score in any game. When it came, it was six down to three and you could feel the apprehension in the crowd and in the stadium as soon as the ball hit the net.
“We won a very important breaking ball in the middle of the park having lost two or three and Karl Lacey came onto it and kicked a good score. Maybe there was a bit of switching off but it was a long game and a tough game and it was a situation that shouldn’t have happened but we’ll have a look at that.”
McGuinness and Rory Gallagher are known to be meticulous in their levels of preparation and together the duo plotted their biggest victory in management to date. Never before had Donegal faced Kerry in the championship and McGuinness worked hard with his panel to outsmart Jack O’Connor.
“They build from the back and play traditional football in many respects,” McGuinness said of Sunday’s opponents. “They try and fetch in the middle of the park, taking the wing-back or wing-forward in for the breaking ball. They commit to it heavily. They don’t force the ball inside, preferring a lot of dink ball to play percentages and we had to be wary of that and counteract that.
“Our sweeper, Mark McHugh, did very well there and so did Frank McGlynn when he moved there. We anticipated what Kerry were doing and got a lot of ball because of that.”
Last year, McGuinness’s first in charge of the seniors, Donegal won the Ulster championship and then progressed to the All-Ireland semi-final after an epic quarter-final win. Twelve months ago it was Kildare before Dublin, this term it’s Cork after Kerry.
“We just wanted to match last year’s achievement and it gives the lads the opportunity to go to Croke Park again and play in a big game.
“They’ve been working very hard for the last two years. I know there are a lot of other county teams that are out there working very hard and they don’t get days like today but we’re just glad to be a part of it. It’s reward for the players.”
In 2009, before McGuinness’s appointment, Cork hammered Donegal at Croke Park, posting 1-27, which remains a record for a football match at headquarters. Barring a handful of adjustments, the panel of contemporaries is similar but the manager doesn’t believe in looking backwards.
“I’m not one for history,” he said. “We know what we are trying to achieve and we’ll look at Cork and see what we can do. I’m sure they will look at us. We’ll try and execute a game-plan and 1-27 three years ago should not be part of our psyche from that point of view. It’s about now and the next three weeks to see if we can get over the line.
“I feel if we can execute our own game plan and take the game to the opposition we can express ourselves. If you’re thinking about a drubbing you got three years ago then you’re in the wrong place. We’ll keep the same approach and that’s what we’ve done since I came in.
“We knew the quality of the opposition today, we know it of the next day and of the final if we make it that far. Nothing really changes. Maybe it’s a big more significant for the supporters as it was the first time Donegal ever played Kerry in the championship and they’ve won now.
“It might be different too for the players, many of whom were heavily criticised. It’s a good day for them but the most important thing is we’ve played a quarter-final and won it.”