When Sam Maguire was carried over the Termon Bridge that links Fermanagh to Donegal last September the two men most culpable for its capture grabbed a handle apiece.
Jim McGuinness had taken a team on its knees to become All-Ireland champions and Michael Murphy had been the embodiment of his manager on the field of play, winning the man of the match award on All-Ireland final day -. the 2-11 to 0-13 win over Mayo.
The Donegal team had left the Burlington at lunchtime as the rain fell in sheets, making their way through Cavan and onto Pettigo by nightfall. Although the downpour continued the spirits were not dampened under the crackling umberellas. But while McGuinness stood for photos, signed jerseys and even duetted with Daniel O’Donnell, he was brooding over what the future might bring.
“It was great to Sam Maguire around the place,” Murphy said. “It was fantastic but one of the things that was great was the way that Jim assessed things very quickly and immediately began thinking about what we can do to win it again.”
Murphy recalls knowing of McGuinness since his childhood, making no secret of the fact he left St Tiernach’s Park in Clones in tears in 1998 following Joe Brolly’s last minute winning goal for Derry against a Donegal team who had their current manager at centre-field.
The two then came together with the Donegal U-21 panel when McGuinness took over and made Murphy captain for the 2010 campaign. An unfancied Donegal won Ulster and almost an All-Ireland, losing to Dublin by a lick of Cavan paint after Murphy’s last minute penalty rammed off a crossbar that might well be still shaking today.
“I was just very taken with his approach to things,” Murphy said of his first season under the management of McGuinness. “Every player was. He is just able to grab your attention right away with the way he spoke about things.
“He speaks passionately about improving you as a player and that just fills you with pride and belief. He can make you feel like the best team in the world. You get a great sense of confidence from him.
“The U-21’s was one of the best groups I will was ever involved with. On another day we might’ve beaten Dublin but I’ll take the blame for that, not Jim. The opportunities he provided us with that year is something we will be ever indebted to him for.”
Nobody will ever blame Murphy for that All-Ireland U-21 loss. The young team and their young manager had reminded an older generation of the excitement that can develop with a successful, committed county team. It wasn’t the end of a journey, it was merely the beginning.
McGuinness, having twice been turned down for the position of senior manager, was the only runner for the role when John Joe Doherty resigned. Even then, McGuinness would later admit, he was worried about not getting appointed. Three strikes would’ve meant he was out. However, whilst there was still heat in the ashes from Crossmaglen, where Donegal had been hammered out of the 2010 championship, sense finally prevailed.
McGuinness told the panel the first day they met in Rosapenna they would be provincial champions. He could see Donegal folk walking up the hill at Clones on Ulster final day and them filtering into Croke Park at the business end of the season.
Nine months afterwards, Donegal were Ulster champions for the first time in 19 years. A year later, they retained the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first time in their history. Then, of course, Donegal defeated all comers - Kerry, Cork and then Mayo - to win the All-Ireland championship for only the second time in their history.
“We’re lucky to have Jim because what he has done over the last two years really is a credit to him and to the management team,” Murphy continued. “He had a vision and belief to carry that out. It’s up to us now to buy into the plans again.”
Whatever about football, the respect that McGuinness and Murphy have for one another means they are more than colleagues. Murphy describes how he felt when McGuinness was named as performance director of Celtic FC’s academy.
“First and foremost, he’s a fantastic person,” Murphy added. “He’s such enthusiasm for football or for non-footballing matters. Some people have a nice aura about them and Jim McGuinness certainly has that. The day I heard Jim got the job at Celtic the one thing I felt was a real sense of pride to see one of our own, from Donegal and from Glenties, do that.
“What he has done for us is amazing and seeing the smiles on people’s faces makes it all worthwhile. We, as people of Donegal, are forever indebted to him.”