A post over the weekend on the facebook site of Newstalk’s Off the Ball programme, which was beamed out live from Donegal Town on Monday, stated Dana, Enya and Daniel O’Donnell were rumored to be coming too.
As it turned out, the locals in the basement at Dom’s Pier One were content enough with the sporting chinwag between local representation in the form of Manus Boyle and Karl Lacey. The ghosts of Christmas past and Christmas present were joined by John Lynch, who was something of a trendsetter in Tyrone having won an All-Star award in 1986, some 20 years before the fad became popular on a widespread basis within the county.
Good journalists are taught to lead their targets in gently. With that train of thought evident the irreplaceable anchor Eoin McDevitt began the Gaelic games discussion, mindful of Sunday’s clash of Donegal and Tyrone, by keeping Boyle and Lacey in the green and gold corner and Lynch biting his gum-shield by white and red one. Derry’s impressive yet unexpected win over Armagh was the first topic on the menu.
Lynch, with his blond locks from 1986 certainly thinning, gave an assessment that certainly cut close to the scalp. Armagh, Lynch felt, were overhyped after defeating a Down side that failed to impress him this year, let alone last, despite reaching the All-Ireland final and losing by a solitary kick of the ball to Cork.
“Down were not that hot, “ he declared. “Last year, see the two games they had to win? They lost both of them – against Tyrone in the Ulster championship and then the All-Ireland final. They got through a nice handy run to the final. There, well the Cork team were unbeatable really.”
McDevitt, playing the diplomat, queried whether such an assessment was a little harsh on Down; who, after all, had defeated reigning champions Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final and then a much fancied and continually improving Kildare in the semis. Not to mention their first round victims Donegal, who admittedly weren’t that hot, but Lynch was a guest in the county for the evening and there were limited number of pints of the complimentary nature being pulled. He didn’t even mention the fact that the “unbeatable” Cork had in fact been beaten in the Munster semi-final replay against Kerry.
Lacey, mindful of Donegal’s weekend appointment against Lynch’s Tyrone stable-mates on Sunday and might’ve preferred to keep his lips as tight as his manmarking, was even more diplomatic than McDevitt. The Four Masters player welcomed the return to prominence of Derry, presumably overlooking the Ulster finals of 1993 and 1998, as well as Joe Brolly’s continual scathing of all things Donegal.
“Armagh were probably complacent, “ Lacey said. “A lot of their supporters were talking about an Ulster final, but fair play to Derry. It’s good to see them back.” Boyle, a bit like in 1992, was there at the start but took his time before announcing his arrival on the scene and then took a pivotal role, also rolled out the red carpet for Derry. He talked up the chances of John Brennan’s team, but a bit like the Cork last year in Munster, the Killybegs native hopes a team perceived as hard to beat can be beaten.
“Derry are really Jekyll and Hyde, “ the 1992 All-Ireland winning corner-forward said. “Every time a Derry team play a good game they play two or three bad ones after. They will be hard to beat in an Ulster final, but everybody can be beat.” Whether Dana, Enya and Daniel were ever in the pipeline at all, Newstalk hardly trekked from Diggs Lane in the capital to the rural north-western outpost to spend the evening talking up Derry, or down Down.
So, the conversation soon swung to Sunday’s meeting of Donegal and Tyrone. Whatever about looking forward, though, no talk about Donegal’s prospects can be conducted without mentioning that game against Antrim. Lynch, a former Red Hugh, wouldn’t strike you as a fella who would gerrymander and he defended Donegal’s, well, perceived overly defensive tactics. Lacey agreed. Ditto for Boyle. Lynch, dreary of the levels of analysis reaching tipping point, even termed a word to describe the saturation, which had punters frantically surfing dictionary.com on their smart phones.
“Horses for courses, “ he said with a gallop. “Donegal had to win that first match and Jim McGuinness was right. The second match was a no-win situation for them. There’s too much anaylsation on the TV and radio. At the end of the day, the experts are Jim McGuinness and Mickey Harte.”
Michael Daly, the editor of this newspaper and former head of sports, urged the present management team to use Michael Murphy on the edge of the square, so Donegal could continue their free-scoring exploits from the league. A bit like Murphy from 30 yards, Mr Daly proved capable of taking and making points, probably more than Lacey has conceded in the last three seasons.
Whatever about Antrim or Cavan, though, Donegal’s championship credentials will be tested to the limit this Sunday against an experienced Tyrone team, many of whom have three All-Ireland winners’ medals clunking in their back pockets. By the impression Lynch shared, it’s not something that is talked about too often.
“For years when Donegal were going well the people on the street knew about it, but it’s totally different in Tyrone, “ he went as far as to say. “We know nothing about what’s going on in the Tyrone camp. It’s pretty much a closed book. Martin Penrose, he’s from beside me, and you get no information out of him. Nothing comes out.”
At this stage, there was an intrigued hush in Dom’s, as the embedded cultural differences of two counties that border one another became apparent. Religion and politics are never supposed to be discussed in a pub, just like Tyrone’s footballing capabilities shouldn’t be mentioned on a national radio show. And when McDevitt broke the silence to ask Lacey exactly what McGuinness had done for Donegal since taking over, the corner-back slowly drew his breath and for a second wished he was Martin Penrose.
“Jim has brought a whole new level of professionalism, “Lacey, to cover himself, said. “He’s put together a group of players who are willing to work really hard and are really committed. We definitely believe he is the right man to bring some success back to the county.”
The last time a championship trophy was brought back to the county; Boyle was scoring nine points on All-Ireland final day. That victory brought joy to many, including, as Tommy from Sligo texted in, people from outside the county: “Can you ask Manus does he remember the reception Donegal got when they got off the train in Sligo with the Sam Maguire? Half the county was there. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to it!”
McDevitt’s relaying of the text gained a snigger or two from those in attendance, many of whom were kitted in the unmistakable blue of Four Masters, while Boyle, more of a red of course, grinned as he recalled the journey home. “Yeah, I can remember it, “ he said, when many wouldn’t.“I can remember that night fairly well. We were in that place where you are at when you are coming home with an All-Ireland and it’s probably the best thing you can ever do – except having kids,” which, whether Boyle intended or not, raised another giggle, before he added something on a note of more seriousness.
“It was probably great to stop in Sligo, but I just have a point to make about that. We used to pass by Pettigo every time we went to Dublin for the very big games and the people of Pettigo always came out to wish us well as well left the county.
“As a group of players we would’ve felt that maybe it would’ve been proper for us to come back through Pettigo but nobody has ever really mentioned that. It’s something that we talked about for a long time so maybe we should thank the people of Pettigo for being good to us over the years.”
A bit late Manus but go on, you did score nine points. And as stated earlier, twice maybe, Dana, Enya nor Daniel didn’t make it for the show, which might’ve been something of a relief. After Boyle’s utterances about Pettigo, sales of Daniel’s sister Margo’s fabled tune about crossing the bridge at Lifford with the Sam Maguire Cup might nosedive to an all-time low - when the public now realise that particular route home was third choice at best.
There will be no songs written or trophies coming to Donegal for a while yet, of course, certainly not until games like the one on Sunday is decided. Lacey finally got the chance impersonate Martin Penrose and keep his thoughts to himself as McDevitt consciously left him out of the pre-match predictions.
“I would say Tyrone, “ replied Lynch without as much as a second thought, confirming the notion about him not gerrymandering. “Donegal by two,” 45-year-old Boyle replied, a little slower but still fast enough, as Four Masters would’ve testified to last season against Killybegs. A two-point win on Sunday would be an outcome almost everyone in Dom’s, or the county as a whole, would grab with both hands. Even half of it would do just fine.