Destination Donegal - Hail our new heroes

For those of us who were privileged to have followed Donegal football over a long period, Sunday was another pinnacle and a day that will be forever etched in our minds.

For those of us who were privileged to have followed Donegal football over a long period, Sunday was another pinnacle and a day that will be forever etched in our minds.

The colour and buzz of 1992 was repeated and surpassed and we were able to witness a panel of 33 players be elevated to hero status right before our eyes.

It was fitting that they were led by one of our ‘old’ heroes from 1992 - Jim McGuinness - who now strides the GAA world in Ireland like a colossus. The remarkable turnaround in Donegal’s fortunes in less than two years is all down to the Naomh Conaill man and his assistant Rory Gallagher.

Their football philosophy and the commitment and industry of the players to buy into that philosophy has created one of the greatest ever stories in the history of the GAA. Jim McGuinness almost became the greatest manager Donegal never had, being sidestepped for the position on a number of occasions.

But when he came in just under two years ago, he had a five year blueprint, which has yielded two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland crown in Years One and Two. Could it be that the Donegal Messiah has plans to conquer Europe!

But being serious, McGuinness is already thinking of 2013 and is talking about the players’ ambition to keep improving which he feels will be necessary to get further success in Ulster and the All-Ireland series next year.

But for now, he can bask in the glory that this Donegal team can be rated the best ever team to represent the county. They assume that mantle, in my mind, because they have won their All-Ireland title the hard way. Back in 1992, the Donegal team played six games (which included a replay against Cavan). In truth they had to play to their best in just two games - against Derry in the Ulster final and Dublin in the All-Ireland final.

This year McGuinness’s Donegal have created a record in winning seven straight games on their way to final glory - and most of those against the best teams in the country - Derry, Tyrone, Down, Kerry, Cork and finally Mayo.

In doing so they have also scored 8-98 and conceded 3-76, an average of 17.5 points for and a concession of 12 per game - almost the exact finishing scoreline on Sunday last in Croke Park.

It has been their scoring ability this year, allied to also limiting the opposition, that has made them the top team in the country.

Paul Durcan has conceded three goals and will feel that two of those should have been avoided, but on Sunday he was quick to pour praise on those in front of him, especially a full-back line that was watertight in the final. Eamon McGee had an outstanding game, while Paddy McGrath would walk away with the ‘Most Improved Player’ award, such is the way he has played, keeping the good wine for Croke Park, where he had three exceptional games.

Whether it was in Jim McGuinness’s plan or not, it seemed as if Karl Lacey and Michael Murphy had made a pact that they were going to put Mayo on the back foot from the very beginning on Sunday. The Mayo forwards were very physical in the opening half, but before they even got a chance to try and niggle at the Donegal defenders, Lacey was tearing forward to find Murphy, and the Glenswilly man had the Mayo net bulging with one of the best ever All-Ireland final goals.

With Colm McFadden availing of a slip in the Mayo defence - probably because of the impact the first goal had - to fire home a second, the game could have been out of sight when Lacey and Murphy combined to set up a third goal chance.

If McFadden had not been denied by David Clarke, then the game would have been over and Mayo would surely not have been able to get back in the contest. As it was, the Connacht side showed remarkable resilience, allied to a few handy frees from referee Maurice Deegan, to get back in the contest.

Beside me in the press box, Keith Duggan was showing nothing of the calmness that permeates his writings in the Irish Times. A bag of nerves would be the best local description!

But I felt that once Jim McGuinness got his side to the dressing room, that the sloppiness that had filtered into the side - thanks to the comfortable lead - would soon be erased.

It meant that the second half was a much more dour affair, with Mayo’s tackling and hard work keeping them in the contest, but when Donegal needed leaders, they had plenty putting their hands up - not least Eamon McGee, Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy. McGee was simply outstanding while Neil Gallagher began to reassert himself at midfield and Murphy won and pointed frees that were real pressure kicks. He did so with such ease, you felt it was like a normal kicking practice after training in MacCumhaill Park.

All through the summer the worn out phrase before every game was, ‘we need to get more from Murphy today’. There were times when the phrase had some resonance, but then again it didn’t take into account that he was recovering from two operations in February and March and had only played a handful of games, all of them at county level.

For those games also, he was willing to sacrifice his normal game on the edge of the square for the betterment of the team, tackling and winning possession around midfield, and, as he showed on Sunday, his use of the ball is that of a real team player.

The joy at the end of the game and on the journey home to Donegal Town was one to savour. The players were available without fail for autographs, photographs, etc with young and old alike. They are a credit to their families, clubs and especially to the county and Jim McGuinness was correct in saying in Donegal Town that the county should be really proud of them.

There will be plenty of individual awards for them in the coming weeks and months with the selection of the Ulster Player of the Year, the overall Player of the Year and the Young Player of the Year and Donegal players will be central in all of those awards.

There will also be the selection of All-Stars for 2012 and Donegal will figure very prominently in that selection. Back in 1992, Donegal picked up seven All-Stars and that could be even surpassed in 2012.

It’s always going to be speculative at this stage, but Paul Durcan seems certain to follow in the footsteps of Gary Walsh as an All-Star goalkeeper; he has been the stand-out ‘keeper this year with David Clarke of Mayo also in the reckoning, but Sunday’s result would seem to have settled any doubt.

Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson would be my four defenders in contention with McGlynn and Lacey guaranteed their All-Stars. In my humble opinion McGlynn should pick up the Ulster GAA Writers’ Player of the Year as the outstanding player in the Ulster championship this year. Mind you he didn’t do too bad when he was asked to deliver in Croke Park also.

At midfield Neil Gallagher may have also sealed an All-Star after another good performance which, allied to his super display against Cork, would be some turnaround for a player who wasn’t able to nail down a starting place last year.

Up front Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy are guaranteed to be picking up their first ever All-Stars while Mark McHugh will also be in the frame, although it was telling that the RTE Sunday Game panel picked McHugh in the half-back line, which I felt was unfair on Donegal defenders who have been excellent this year.

Young Patrick McBrearty is a frontrunner also for the Young Player of the Year award and few would quibble with his selection.

If I was pushed, I would feel that Donegal might get eight All-Star awards, such was their dominance of the 2012 campaign and the tough route they have had to take. My eight would be - Durcan, McGrath, McGlynn, Lacey, Gallagher, McHugh, Murphy, McFadden. But then I don’t have a vote!

There is also the little matter of picking the Player of the Year and I feel this will be a straight fight between three Donegal players - Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey and Colm McFadden. McGlynn has probably been the most consistent, while Colm McFadden has had a year to remember, taking on the mantle as a scoring leader when Michael Murphy was struggling with injury and used further from goal. His final tally of 4-32 as the leading marksman in the 2012 championship is an honour that puts him up there with an elite group.

Before the final I felt Karl Lacey needed to produce a competent performance to be crowned as Player of the Year, such were his phenomenal displays at the business end of the championship. There is no doubt that the Four Masters man has been Donegal’s best player over a four or five year period and if he gets the ultimate honour, it will be one that will be fully deserved and will elevate him even further as Donegal’s most decorated footballer.

Aftermath

Sunday’s final in Croke Park was different in one other way with Jim McGuinness using the after-match press conference to air his views on the controversial book, ‘This Is Our Year’ by Declan Bogue. The Donegal manager’s criticism of the author and one other unnamed journalist put the cat among the pigeons on Sunday evening.

The decision of Jim McGuinness to wait until now to speak publicly on the book was surely planned and calculated. For a time on Sunday night I wondered if Jim’s decision would become the story rather than the team winning the All-Ireland, but thankfully that was not the case.

There is probably a lot more to come on this issue, but for this week the spotlight should be on the 33 Donegal heroes and their management team who have brought glory - and Sam - back to the hills. We can return to the other issue at another time.

On Monday night on the Diamond in Donegal Town, even Daniel O’Donnell had to play a supporting role to Jim McGuinness as he gave a rendition of Destination Donegal.

Let us hail our 33 new heroes!