The banner in the crowd said it all. Donegal Catch v Kerrygold. In the heat of battle we know who melts first!
Donegal sealed probably the second greatest victory of their championship history when they defeated Kerry on Sunday in Croke Park.
The legendary Micheal O Muircheartaigh was on RTE Radio on Monday morning live from the London Olympics and proclaimed that Kerry had now faced every county in Ireland in championship but for Kilkenny.
But how many counties can claim a 100% record against the Kingdom?
Donegal have that record after their 1-12 to 1-10 victory, which could have been easier but for a late Kerry rally which threatened to spoil the party.
Twelve months ago we thought we would never again experience such drama when Kevin Cassidy hit a late winner. This time around it was almost as exciting, but for different reasons as Kerry hit 1-2 in three minutes to cut a six point lead to the minimum before Rory Kavanagh sent Karl Lacey through for what proved to be a precious insurance point.
This was reflected upon by Donegal mentor, Rory Gallagher, speaking after the game in the bowels of the Croke Park stadium.
“Last year was gripping but to beat Kerry, they are the flagship team in the country, they are the Manchester United of gaelic football, they have some of the best footballer to ever play the game so I suppose that’s a bigger win than beating Kildare, there’s no doubt, it’s a great feeling,” said Rory.
The Donegal management had to make big decisions prior to the game, bringing in Eamonn McGee and Martin McElhinney.
“Declan Walsh was struggling with a hamstring strain and wasn’t right anyway and he even pulled up in the warm-up. We put Eamonn on Donaghy and that’s the way we’ve been doing things all season, whatever suits for the opposition and I thought big Neil declared himself fit on Thursday night and that was a massive boost for us all He’s probably been our best player all year, he made a massive contribution when he came on, he caught some great balls.”
The Donegal No. 2 wasn’t fully pleased with the way the side performed in the opening half and they had plenty of reason to be content at half-time.
“We were definitely happy to be two points up but we weren’t that happy with the way we played, we didn’t really get at Kerry properly, we didn’t get enough quality ball into Michael and Colm and then when we were running the ball, we probably ran into a bit of trouble. But we were delighted to be two points up having not played great and one thing you couldn’t fault was our effort level, our intensity level and I think in the end that’s what ground Kerry down.
“When we went 1-11 to eight points up it looked good. There’s always a danger and Kieran Donaghy got a goal out of nothing today when no other player would have got it and after that, to be honest, we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. We were delighted to see Rory winning that ball and to flick it off to Karl - it says it all about Karl Lacey and his fitness levels when he’s going like that in the 72nd minute,” said Rory.
The Killybegs-based Gallagher made a plea to have the club championship, which is planned for next weekend, to be postponed to give the county management time to plan for the All-Ireland semi-final.
“We’ve got the club championship next week and ideally we’d love to get that off because it would give us the three weeks. I know that’s tough on the club players but that’s what we’d wish for ourselves, to get a three week lead in. The club championship is due to be played next week but that would only leave us with one weekend preparation for Cork and we seen today, Cork were very impressive in the second half, we need all the time we can.
“Apart from the risk of injury which is obviously a huge concern because of the competitiveness of the club championship, we wouldn’t have them this week, it would be Tuesday or Wednesday of next week when they’d be back on board with us - it would leave us really with only a couple of training sessions for Cork. We’d love a clean run at it, but whether that’s possible or not, I’m not sure.
“The county board have been very supportive, they always have been,” said Gallagher.
Another man who was in a very happy frame of mind outside the Donegal dressing room on Sunday was Sean McBride, better known as Judge Sean McBride in Cavan and Monaghan.
“When we went six points on, I thought we were going to kick on and score a few points. Then Kerry got the breaks and I thought they were lucky to get that goal, but that was the coming of age for that Donegal because that’s classical Kerry, coming back near the end to maybe get a draw and sneak a win.
“But that’s when Donegal dug very, very deep. The whole team did and then they counter attacked. Karl Lacey showed great maturity in what he did. He could have gone for a goal but he was wise not to. He took the point and the game was in the bag. Had he not done so, the Kerry goalkeeper could have saved and they would have a counter attack.
“I’m just overcome with it. A lot of Donegal people never thought we would see the day that Donegal would take Kerry on at their own game in Croke Park and beat them and beat them fair and square.
“Fair dues to Kerry, they never gave up,” said Judge McBride, who felt that Donegal didn’t always get their fair share of the decisions from referee Marty Duffy. “Referees have a difficult job but I feel we didn’t get all the decisions and I’m not criticising the referee. We’re not making excuses, we got on with the game and won it,” said Sean. “It is a huge lift for the county in the times we are living in,” he said, adding that all the Donegal ‘emigrants’ in Cavan and Monaghan are so proud of their native county.