Michael Murphy might have been the man who lifted Sam Maguire last September but the Donegal captain has eyes for only Tyrone and the Ulster championship this Sunday.
Prior to his inter-county debut as a 17-year-old in the 2007 championship season, Murphy recalls scouring the northern province as a supporter, through the years of Donegal’s wilderness. He even left St Tiernach’s Park in Clones with tears in his eyes in 1998 - a fortnight before his ninth birthday after Joe Brolly’s last minute goal stole the Anglo-Celt Cup for Derry.
It was just one of a catalogue of Donegal shortcomings. Even on the last afternoon before he made the crossover from terrace to tracksuit, Murphy watched Tyrone rip Donegal to ribbons in the 2007 Ulster semi-final.
Like the Donegal manager, Jim McGuinness, Donegal’s players have had just one day circled on their calendar since the pairings were made for the Ulster championship away back in October. It’s been claimed Donegal may be putting all their eggs in one basket but it’s not a new policy for McGuinness’s panel.
“Last year all the talk from the first day we started back was May 20 and Cavan, the year before it was May 15 and Antrim,” said Murphy. “The next championship game, no matter who it’s against or when it is, is the most important. And this year it’s Tyrone on May 26. It’s a build-up we’re used to. We embed the given date in our head from the start of the year.
“The Ulster championship is massive and so hard to win. I’ve followed Donegal long enough to see how hard it was to come by. I followed good Donegal sides that came up short and you can see the calibre of the winners in recent years – the great Armagh and Tyrone teams. It’s our bread and butter.”
Between Brolly’s late winner and Donegal’s first Ulster title in 19 years back in 2011, Tyrone and Armagh held a duopoly on the province. Armagh may have slipped into the distance with the rickety wheels of transiton in motion but Tyrone are still a force to be reckoned with.
Last season, in the Ulster semi-final, it took an improvised Paul Durcan save with the foot to deny Martin Penrose what would’ve been an equalising goal in the fourth of three minutes’ stoppage time. Twelve months beforehand, at the same stage, Donegal and Tyrone were tied in the last minute before Dermot Molloy scored a match-winning goal.
Maybe it’s too clichéd to suggest the formbook goes out the window when it comes to titanic championship meetings between neighbouring counties.
But when Tyrone were the dominant force in the land, their record from winning the 2003 All-Ireland and meeting McGuinness’s team for the first time in the championship in the aforementioned 2011 encounter, their record against Donegal was only break-even – played 17, won eight, lost eight and drew one.
Now, with back-to-back Ulster titles, Donegal are considered the team to beat. However, alongside McGuinness, Mickey Harte is arguably the most tactically aware of all inter-county managers and just like the last two seasons in the head-to-heads between the sides, the margins are narrow.
“You have to have respect for a team with five Ulster championships and three All-Ireland titles,” Murphy said of Tyrone. “They’re still here knocking on the door and have shown longevity to keep coming back with hunger. Tyrone had a great league campaign and have introduced some fabulous young players. They’re a massive proposition.”
Only one team in the last two decades – Kerry in 2006 and 2007 - have managed to defend the All-Ireland title and even that came when there was a change in manager between Jack O’Connor and Pat O’Shea.
Since then any talk of potential dynasties in the wake of All-Ireland triumphs that might’ve filled the September airwaves before disintegrating. Sam Maguire has proved to be a heavy chalice.
“The pressure is something you come to expect as All-Ireland champions,” Murphy added. “Teams certainly lift it when they play you. But you can’t look a game ahead of yourself or two games ahead and the Ulster championship is a stark reminder of that.
“Tyrone is the only game we have put focus on for now and we try and get everybody’s individual game plan intact to improve the team performance.”
May is perhaps the most innocent of the the months on the GAA calendar. Every team, no matter where they stand on football’s pecking order, carry dreams at this time of year. Some are based on statistics and others on sentiment but in one respect everyone is equal.
Donegal’s achievements of last season mean their aspirations conceivably are more equal than most. But Murphy, who was only the second Donegal man ever to stand on the Lower Hogan stand as team captain of All-Ireland winners after Anthony Molloy in 1992, maintains the slate has been wiped clean.
“As a player, you would like to think the experience would stand to you,” he said of last year’s successes. “Pressure, of course, comes with that but that’s just something we will have to deal with.
“Last year is last year and for us, the All-Ireland has been forgotten about. We just want to kick the ground running. At this time of year every team has their own dreams and nobody is too bothered over who won what last year. It’s the same with us.”