Three years ago when Cork hammered Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-final Neil McGee and Barry Dunnion were trying to get the lift to the basement level inside of Croke Park.
The team bus was waiting to depart for home in the bowels of the stadium but the two defenders were unsure of which level to get off at. At one stage about an hour after the match had finished they stuck their head out of the lift at the St Jones’ Road entrance level, still not the right one, and McGee asked those outside the door: “How the hell do ya get out of here?”
Cork had just notched a cricket score against the side managed by John Joe Doherty, with their total of 1-27 still a record for a football match at headquarters, so McGee and Dunnion, like many of their teammates, simply wanted to get out of the place as quick as possible.
In the dressingroom after the game, so fluid were Cork’s attacks from the back, it was Donegal’s forwards and not defenders who asked one another how much their respective markers scored.
“We were just hockeyed,” McGee says of 2009. “It was men against boys and they came at us from every angle. It was a record score. Let’s hope there’s not a repeat of that on Sunday, that’s for sure.
“Only for Michael Murphy that day, who put up a bit of a score for us (Donegal scored 2-10 with the Glenswilly man posting six points of his own and assisting 2-2) it would’ve been even worse. We had come through the qualifiers after coming off a bad league and losing to Antrim in Ulster, so we were probably happy just to reach a Croke Park. It’s different now.”
Cork enter Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final as favourites but the margins are thin. While the gulf between the teams was 14 points in 2009, three years beforehand it in McGee’s first championship season it was a much closer run thing but still ended in a galling defeat,
1-11 to 1-10.
Now, though, Donegal are a welcome addition to the latter stages of the All-Ireland series. Last season Jim McGuinness’s revolution lifted a panel of players from the floor to the doorstep of an All-Ireland final, losing a claustrophobic semi-final 0-8 to 0-6 to Dublin, before this year’s evolution into a more productive attacking force. Donegal are at the same stage again.
If one singular moment ever emphasised the differing approach it was Karl Lacey’s decisive injury-time score that settled the 1-12 to 1-10 quarter-final win over Kerry earlier this month.
Donegal had seen a six-point advantage gnawed down to one following a contentious Kieran Donaghy goal and points from Paul Galvin and Anthony Maher, while Kerry had laterally won a monopoly of possession at centre-field. However, centre-back Lacey, one of the most competent defenders in the game with three All-Stars nestling on his mantelpiece, took a gamble and hurdled forward.
Rory Kavanagh won possession from a Paul Durcan kick-out and following a pirouette, the siege was lifted as he set the Four Masters defender away. Lacey strode forward and, as he always does, took the right option. Game over.
“Last time out, it was brilliant to beat Kerry but lots of teams have baggage when it comes to Kerry but we didn’t because it was all new,” McGee says. “That stood to us. When they got it down to a point and the likes of Tómas O’Sé and Galvin, Colm Cooper and Donaghy, it was a bit intimidating but we held our ground and Karl pushed on to get the point that won it.
“Showing mental toughness in that situation is not something you can really prepare for but you can develop it. We showed a little of it last year against Kildare and again against Kerry.”
With no less than six Donegal teams having fallen at the semi-final stage since the first Ulster championship win in 1972, the contemporaries are now on the doorstep of replicating the footsteps of the 1992 team and making the final.
The path this season has been difficult and various approaches have been used to out-think teams like Tyrone, Down and Kerry. Cork are the shortest price of the remaining quartet that also includes Mayo and Dublin in terms of lifting Sam Maguire but McGee believes Sunday is just the next step on the ladder for Donegal.
“It’s a massive challenge and one in which the rewards are massive,”
McGee continues. “To get into an All-Ireland final would be a huge achievement for this team. We were very disappointed to lose against Dublin last year, gutted in fact.
“This is definitely the biggest test we will have all year. Cork are a really good side. We’re not afraid of any team anymore and the sort of game I personally really enjoy is the physical side of it. When you train so hard you’re not going to lie down and let someone run over the top of you. A lot of people would be willing to give their right leg to get to where we are. We’re going to fight to the end.”
Just three summers ago Neil McGee was wondering how to get out of Croke Park. But now, with players like the All-Star full-back part of Jim McGuinness’s metamorphous in the fortunes of football in Donegal, McGee can help Donegal stay there. There will be no sneaking away this time.