Donegal bid to retain the Anglo Celt Cup for the first time in their roller-coaster history against Down at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones on Sunday (throw-in 2pm).
Although the side managed by Jim McGuinness are on the cusp of history, their opponents are perhaps the most enigmatic force in the province.
A cyclical team, Down have a habit of breeezing in with that unmistakable swagger whenever the notion appears to take them, collecting silverware and the blessings of the football fraternity before ghosting off as quickly as they arrived.
Donegal’s blueprint was essentially similar, maybe on a lesser scale, but that has been the most obvious change in the last two years.
When Michael Murphy’s penalty helped defeat a carefree Derry in the Ulster final last year, Donegal beat a team that was effectively the same as themselves of old. Derry had turned up in hope, having played open and expansive football, but were suffocated by a force more scientific than spontaneous.
In terms of personnel, Donegal will be unable to line up on Sunday as they did in the cat and mouse semi-final against Tyrone, which they came through on a two-point margin, 0-12 to 0-10.
Neil Gallagher sustained torn ankle ligaments playing for his club Glenswilly against Kilcar in the first minute of their All-County League Division One clash in Towney the weekend before last.
“It’s disappointing for Neil because he’s worked very hard on things and aspects of his game that weren’t natural to him,” McGuinness said of Gallagher. “He changed the way he plays to fit into the way we play and did that very successfully.
“He’s very good at winning primary possession for us and he will be a big loss to us in the lead up to the match.”
Barring three minutes against Tyrone, McGuinness has been unable to field his strongest spine in the championship this season.
Full-forward and captain Michael Murphy hadn’t recovered from his knee medial ligament injury in time for the 1-16 to 1-10 win over Cavan at Breffni Park in May, while midfielder Rory Kavanagh missed the 2-13 to 0-9 win over Derry with an ankle complaint.
Against Tyrone last time out, full-back Neil McGee was taken off with hamstring bother but whoever has stepped into anyone else’s shoes has grasped the opportunity, a fact that authenticates the need for a fit and ready panel.
Leo McLoone was the unlucky party against Tyrone, missing out after a goalscoring appearance against Derry and although McGuinness is occasionally a difficult man to second guess, his Naomh Conaill clubmate seems like Gallagher’s most likely replacement.
McLoone, a competent performer in a variety of roles, could slot into the half-forward line to facilitate Ryan Bradley lining up alongside Kavanagh at centre-field.
Martin McElhinney, who replaced the hobbling Kavanagh before the interval of last year’s final against Derry, might also be in contention, while it was his clubmate Christy Toye that started in the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
McGee has recovered from his semi-final injury and other players who had hamstring injuries over the last three weeks - namely Bradley, Paddy McGrath and David Walsh - are all in the frame.
Martin O’Reilly, since his injury was a tear and not a strain, is perhaps the furthest away from full fitness and McGuinness’s assistant Rory Gallagher said this week that Down might be too soon for the teen.
“There are situations where people are left out but we’ve said all along it’s horses for courses,” McGuinness said of the selecting of a team, whether tactical or in terms of unavailability. “We know ourselves how we want to pick the team for us and how we want to pick it for the opposition. We’ll weigh it up.
“They understand we’re trying to win matches – to get another match – and if someone is left out it’s never ever personal. People have different jobs on different days, that’s the way I feel you have to do it - put as much thought into it as possible and hope it works out.”
Down’s talisman Benny Coulter is pressing for a recall after a fractured ankle suffered whilst playing for his club Mayobridge in early May forced him to miss a first championship match in 10 years, the Ulster championship quarter-final, a 2-20 to 1-8 win over Peter Canavan’s Fermanagh in Enniskillen.
Coulter returned to score with his first touch in the dramatic 1-14 to 1-13 semi-final win over Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh - a match in which McCartan’s team trailed 0-11 to 0-2 just before half-time.
“When I got injured I thought my aim at best was to play in the Ulster final,” Coulter said this week. “When I sat down with the management that was the timescale we got. I tried to persuade James to play me at some stage in the semi-final. I wouldn’t doubt myself to play a full game in the final but I’ll leave that up to James.”
With Coulter nailing his hopes of a start to the mast and Dan Gordon also back in the fold following a broken bone in his foot, Aidan Brannigan is available again after the one-match ban he picked up in the wake of the Fermanagh game. Niall McParland had a plaster removed from a broken hand only last week but is unlikely to feature.
Conor Garvey obtained a retrospective sanction following the win over Monaghan for an alleged stamping incident on Karl O’Connell. Garvey went to Croke Park on Wednesday night last to make his case to the Central Appeals Committee (CAC), but his case was thrown out because the CAC did not receive his €100 appeal fee on time.
McCartan, an Ulster championship and All-Ireland winner in both 1991 and 1994, feels his players merit a provincial crown.
“It may sound a bit like rhetoric but the only reason I want to win an Ulster championship is for some of the players who have toiled for so long,” he said.
“When you sit back and think about it, it’s all about silverware. I just see a group of players trying to move heaven and earth to get a medal for themselves, their families and their county.
“I’ve two Ulster medals, which is probably not a big return for 13 years, but I would gladly give one of them up for these lads to get their medal. They’ve done what has been asked of them and I think they’re a good enough group of players to achieve that goal.”
Donegal have goals too. Such has been the progression under McGuinness, Donegal are almost unbackable at 2/7 on Sunday, while Down are an appealing price at 7/2 in a two-horse race. Bookmakers’ odds aren’t worth the chalk they are scribbled with but the lopsidedness of Sunday’s prices show the perception of just how far Donegal have come under McGuinness.
Two years ago, in a red hot Ulster championship opener at MacCumhaill Park, just as the clock ticked over 70 minutes, Rory Kavanagh popped over a point to level things at 2-7 to 0-13 between John Joe Doherty’s Donegal and Down.
But extra-time acted as a springboard not for the hosts, but for McCartan’s Down. Coulter, the ace predator, scored a late goal to seal a 1-15 to 2-10 win.
Donegal would be the first team eliminated from the championship that year, while Down were to be the very last, losing an All-Ireland final for the first time in six when Cork edged them out by a single point, 0-16 to 0-15.
Even in the last three meetings, Down have come out on top on each occasion. The aforementioned win in Ballybofey in 2010 was their second at the venue that year, following a 0-13 to 0-11 National Football League Division Two win under the floodlights that March.
This season, on a chilly opening night in Newry, it was Down who eked a 1-10 to 1-9 win in Division One.
There’s a natural inclination of folk from Donegal to be as sceptical of credit as they are of criticism. In the forgotten county, those clever marketing folk at Tourism Ireland got it exactly right – up here it certainly is different. Last year’s dissenting voices were taken with a precautionary pinch of salt, just like this season’s band-wagoners are.
No team has evolved at the rapid rate of Donegal since McGuinness was initially appointed. The ‘Donegal duvet’ of last year keeps their feet warm at the back but the side have now broadened their capabilities as an attacking force.
The reason for McGuinness’s initial caution on appointment is understandable. In 2009, Donegal faced Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final and left with the unwanted record of the highest concession ever in a football match played at Croke Park, 1-27.
A year later, after losing to Down, Donegal were hammered in Crossmaglen by Armagh in a first round qualifier, 2-14 to 0-11. Donegal players could only trudge off with their heads bowed and claimed to have heard derisory snorts of laughter from Armagh’s panel during their warm-down.
McGuinness inherited a team with neither form nor confidence. On appointment he promised to restore the pride and told supporters no team of his “would ever leave the field without leaving every last ounce on it”.
Establishing a solid defensive pattern coupled with a strict and gruesome training regime was the plan for year one. Donegal won a first Ulster championship since the decorated All-Ireland winning team of 1992. Now it’s time to try and replicate that provincial triumph ahead of the All-Ireland series.
For all Down’s good press, last season was a disappointing one. Armagh toppled them in the Ulster quarter-final, 1-15 to 1-10, before a 2-10 to 0-14 hammering at Cork’s hand in the fourth round of the All-Ireland qualifiers.
But regardless of the odds and ends, both teams enter the cauldron of Clones as equals on Sunday.
Down haven’t won an Ulster since the summer of their last All-Ireland in 1994, while no team has ever won Ulster back to back having been forced the long way around, via the preliminary round like Donegal have. Both have equal and opposites reasons in their quest for the Anglo Celt.
“I know it’s going to be a massive occasion,” McGuinness said. “It’s going to be as big an occasion in Ulster for maybe the last 15 or 20 years because it is going to be sold out.
“It’s going to be great for the players. I really mean that. The players running out on the field with hardly an empty seat in the house is something they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives.
“Even the Ulster finals I got beat in, I remember the atmospheres. It’s something our players deserve for the work they’ve been putting in. If we can go and win it, it’ll make it even better.”