Sensational is one of the most overused terms in the sporting vernacular but there are few adjectives more fitting to describe the rollercoaster ride provided by Donegal and Kildare at Croke Park on Saturday night.
It was an epic, one in which the temperatue rose steadily through tepid to boiling point. When Donegal led by a point approaching full-time, we only thought the tingles of the nerves were jangling. As intense as it was, there was always a lingering feeling there was more the come. And there was. An entirely new and dramatic chapter was just about to be written, one that will be talked about fondly for years. And although the Anglo-Celt Cup has residence in the north-west for the winter, Saturday’s fare was arguably even more spectacular.
It’s sometimes awkward to pen an appraisal whilst a journey is still being mapped but Jim McGuinness’s appeal continues to develop at an astounding pace. The little things the Donegal manager has done to lift the mood of a county would fill a set of encyclopaedias. A couple of them, though, jump from the page in the surreal surroundings of a floodlit Croke Park on July’s last Saturday. The sunshine had gone home. There was no place for it. Having started in summer the contest ended in darkness - it was a journey in itself. It was even exhausting to watch, never mind play. It began as a tactical battle, a game of chess and concluded on whoever’s heart could beat the longest. Donegal and Kildare fought until the death.
When the final whistle sounded on Donegal’s championship last summer in Crossmaglen, Kevin Cassidy trundled off with his mind made up. He had enjoyed some good moments in a Donegal shirt, cumulating in an All-Star award and an NFL title. The debris of Donegal football lay scattered and Cassidy thought the job of repairing it should go to a younger set of players. There was no ostentatious retirement announcement. Cassidy, instead, preferred to wander from the spotlight in a discreet manner and had planned to spend the autumn taking on a new phase in his life - fatherhood. That all changed, of course, with a bit of cajoling from McGuinness and the rest, as they say, is history.
A perfectionist like McGuinness would be acutely aware Donegal’s performance was in certain areas, flawed. Admittedly, and in defence of the manager, losing Michael Murphy before throw-in threw the best laid plans in the air and during a tense and rigid first half, Donegal’s focal point had been lost. McGuinness, taking the pro-active stance, reacted fast with Eamon McGee and Murphy being strung from the bench, despite the former not having been involved in the new regime. It was a day for experienced men, with Christy Toye’s reintroduction to the county colours signifying that notion.
For Toye, the frustrations of 25 months on the sidelines was eradicated in the exact same number of seconds. After replacing Colm McFadden, his stablemate at St Michael’s, Toye burst onto a pass from the excellent Frank McGlynn to rifle the only goal of the game. The hairs might be peppered a little greyer than they were on his previous visits but the 28-year-old retained his goalscoring prowess at Croke Park, having previously rippled the net against Meath, Armagh and Cork.
One man whose prowess was halted was Kildare’s talismanic John Doyle. For the first time in 51 championship games, or 11 years, Doyle failed to register a single score. Credit for that goes to Donegal’s defence, who were outstanding. Karl Lacey has constantly been the brightest of lights but his show on Saturday eclipsed possibly all he had done before.
The Four Masters man could be seen seizing up at full-time, having run himself into the ground. Neil McGee was a close second, while Anthony Thompson, McGlynn, Ryan Bradley and David Walsh all excelled on a day when the panel was stretched to the point of ripping.
For all the talk about Kieran McGeeney’s side’s fitness, it was Donegal’s legs than ran the furthest, particularly with a three-point deficit at the start of the second period of extra-time. Their honestly and willingness can never be doubted.
Donegal’s policies are begrudgingly becoming accepted in wider circles, but the one thing that cannot be underestimated is their courage. On three or four occasions on Saturday, as the evening ran into the arm’s of the night thief, they looked like a crumpled docket. The manager was brave to make the switches he did, the former skipper to seize the responsibly, the current captain to provide such an impact whilst hobbling on one leg.
Time and again Donegal came back. McGuinness said after lifting the Ulster championship that seeing the smiles on people’s faces makes it all worthwhile and thanks to him and his panel the Donegal support beamed home at ungodly hours of the night. And they’ll get another chance to do so, which is something we all can look forward to.