On March 11th in Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney Donegal manager Jim McGuinness stood in the middle of the field in aftermath of a league drubbing (2-16 to 1-8) and said “the only positive to take is that we got a lesson and we have to take lesson from it.”
“Really that’s one of the lessons from today. Football is not a game of perfect and things are going to go wrong. You have to live with that and keep coming back,” said Jim. “They gave a real masterclass, especially in the second half.”
In the aftermath of that game on my way back to the car, which was parked across the road in the Dr Croke’s ground, I overheard a conversation between the Kerry midfielder Bryan Sheehan and substitute Seamus Scanlon and the tone of their chat was how poor the Donegal challenge was with Colm McFadden’s name prominent on the list of players who were below par.
Fast forward to Croke Park on Sunday last and Kerry were given a sharp reality check. They didn’t know back in March that Colm McFadden had only returned to training a week earlier and had played just one game (against Cork) because of a back injury which persisted over the winter.
It was as if Colm Anthony had also overheard the chit-chat between the Kerry men, such was his willingness to show them who was boss when the real chips were down on Jones’s Road on Sunday last.
The Donegal team that took the field in Killarney in March showed just one change from that which started on Sunday last in Croke Park. Neil Gallagher was at midfield in Killarney and would surely have been there also on Sunday in the starting line-up but for injury.
The Kerry team had five changes but most of them would be to strengthen the side with the likes of Tomas O Se, Aidan O’Mahony and Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper returning.
The contrast between what we witnessed in Killarney and Croke Park on Sunday last was as wide as the Atlantic Ocean.
Whatever lessons had to be learned, were learned in double quick time by Jim McGuinness and his backroom team.
Sunday last provided the team of 2012 with their biggest examination and they came through with flying colours. Indeed what happened in the last few minutes could be the best thing that has happened to date in 2012 - an even better lesson than that handed out in Killarney in March.
They know that there will be even more searching tests ahead and those of us who witnessed the curtain-raiser in Croke Park on Sunday know that Cork will go into the All-Ireland semi-final as odds on favourites. The present odds for the All-Ireland title see the Rebels as 7/4 with Dublin at 9/4 and Donegal at 11/4 while Mayo are rated 8/1 outsiders (probably because of the loss of Andy Moran) but even at that, the Mayo odds seem a bit extreme.
Those pundits who put Donegal in the top three in Ireland a few months back after they overcame Derry in impressive fashion have been proved correct.
But what has been really impressive about Donegal’s progress under Jim McGuinness, is the way the players have adopted his mantra, both on and off the field. Minutes after Sunday’s impressive display in overcoming Kerry and with the national media putting them under the spotlight, they revert to the ‘McGuinness mode’ of the win being just another step and of there being tougher games ahead.
Trying to apportion some level of personal success to the side’s win is almost impossible. Each player deflects any credit and directs the praise at some other facet of the team’s display. Like on Sunday, man of the match, Colm McFadden, heaped all the praise on the defence, while Eamonn McGee said it wasn’t about who he was marking, it was about the team.
That psychological bonding of everything being about the team performance is what the success of Donegal is all about.
In our series of articles on the 1992 heroes over the past six months, last week’s spotlight fell on Jim McGuinness and the comments by young Reece McDyer of Glenties put it so succinctly when describing what McGuinness has achieved in such a short space of time.
“Jim has built a platform for a highly motivated team and brought Donegal football to a much higher level. Jim obviously believes that you achieve success the old fashioned way. You earn it!
“To me Jim is the definition of inspiration.”
What a description!
His CV with Donegal so far would have no equal of any manager in the history of the Association. Played 11 championship, won 10, lost 1. Won back-to-back Ulster senior championships; National League and Ulster U-21 Championship.
And yet he knows that there is further improvement in the present bunch of players at his disposal. On Sunday last we saw the likes of Neil McGee and Karl Lacey rediscover their 2011 form. We saw Leo McLoone make a real impression in the forward line after his transition from half-back.
We need Michael Murphy to do likewise on August 26th.
And along with that we need all the others to maintain their high level of performance for two more games.
The goal on Sunday reminded a friend of mine, Brendan O’Reilly, of a similar goal from Martin McHugh in 1992 in Cavan with Tony Boyle taking the goalkeeper’s attention.
To equal the achievement of 1992, Donegal will have to defeat the 2009, 2010 and 2011 All-Ireland champions.
Part one is complete.
Well-known Donegal supporter Danny McMenamin contacted me on Tuesday to issue a warning to Donegal supporters going to Croke Park on Sunday fortnight. On Sunday last at half-time in the big game, Danny was the victim of a pickpocket and lost his wallet with a considerable sum of money. He just wants to warn people to be vigilant because he does not want the same to happen again.
Spare a thought for David Walsh who will have an important ‘phone call to make on Monday, 27th August along the lines of: “Hello Pippa; I’m very sorry but we won yesterday and Jim will not allow me to play in the All-Ireland Celebrity Bainisteoir semi-final. Maybe you could make a personal plea, but I have to concentrate on just one game at a time.”