THE bubbles in Donegal’s champagne hadn’t even the chance to go flat before the talk was about Tyrone.
Whilst Jim McGuinness made sure to let his panel enjoy the celebrations having lifted Sam Maguire for only the second time in their history, there was to be a line drawn in the Dubai sand, once they touched down from their end of season holiday.
There has, one suspects, been a circle scribbled around May 26 on McGuinness’s calendar, whether at home in Glenties or at his apartment in Glasgow, for some time.
“The year kinda just flew in,” full-back Neil McGee said in relation to the term as All-Ireland champions. “We were straight back from Dubai and into it. We’re almost here now. This is what all the focus has been on.”
That November day in 2010, when McGuinness first met his panel at the Rosapenna Hotel in Downings, the then new manager spoke about the importance of the Ulster championship.
As a player, he had been a loser on provincial final day three times – 1993, 1998 and 2002.
The second of those depressing Clones afternoons, when Joe Brolly had scored a last minute winning goal for Derry in the July rain and blew kisses the Donegal supportersd, marked the end of diplomatic Ulster.
Armagh and Tyrone would share the next 12 homecomings for the Anglo-Celt between them. The need to compete with those teams was one of McGuinness’s first mandates.
Tyrone, in June 2011, was the first real acid test of the new regime. Donegal, initially, flailed at the challenge, as Tyrone ran into a four-point first half lead.
Approaching the break Stephen O’Neill shot for goal, only for Anthony Thompson, who had ran 80 yards, to make the block.
The move concluded with Kevin Cassidy scoring a galvanising Donegal point to get Donegal some traction in the match. If one incident represented the changing of the tide in Ulster, then this was it.
Goals in the last 10 minutes from Colm McFadden and Dermot Molloy gave Donegal a 2-6 to 0-9 win.
McGee, afterwards, more off the record than on it, admitted in previous years it was the sort of match Donegal “would’ve got hammered in.”
He recalled it last week: “In 2011 we were very poor in the first half and Tyrone missed a lot of chances. We performed much better in the second half and managed to get over the line with a couple of late goals.”
Donegal won a first Ulster in 19 years, defeated Kildare in an epic All-Ireland quarter-final before losing out on a place in the Croke Park final having lost 0-8 to 0-6 to Dublin in perhaps the most forensically examined football match ever played.
McGuinness promised that evening in Croke Park, as the knives were being sharpened, that Donegal would evolve.
And by the time they met Tyrone last June in Clones again, they had. But so too had Mickey Harte’s team.
As Ballyshannon native Keith Duggan put it afterwards in The Irish Times, it was “as frenetic as an ice hockey match but it was also as deliberate as a game of chess.”
Donegal came from 0-6 to 0-5 down at the break to win 0-12 to 0-10, having Paul Durcan to thank for a stoppage time save, improvised with the foot and unconventionally off the upright, from Martin Penrose’s shot.
“It was a really tight sort of a game,” McGee said, having been forced to watch all but the first three minutes from the bench with a hamstring strain.
“They kept plugging away and got back into it and we were indebted to Paul Durcan for making a late a save.
“Both those games were massive. They were Ulster semi-finals and having beaten Tyrone we were very confident going into both finals.
“If we can get a win over Tyrone it could be another huge springboard towards another long summer. That’s the bottom line.
“Everyone wants what we got last year. It’ll take a lot of hard work and we’ll need a bit of luck but that’s what we’re gearing towards.”
Donegal’s emphasis on the importance of May 26 has carried almost as many column inches as their subsequent relegation from Division One of the Allianz League.
McGuinness explained the need not to “overcook” his players in spring. The temperature in the kitchen would be hot enough come summer.
Meanwhile, on their return to the top flight, Tyrone blazed their way through to the final, losing only in the final to Dublin 0-18 to 0-17, without the services of their talismanic forward Stephen O’Neill.
The importance of having a decent league will have more weight come Sunday evening.
“There’s been a lot of talk about the game. It’s probably the biggest tie of the first round so all eyes will be on it,” McGee said. “Tyrone, along with Dublin, are probably the form team in the whole country and were unlucky to lose the league final.
“Tyrone probably owe us one. They were going for three Ulster titles in a row two years ago and now the shoe is on the other foot. That’s in the back of our minds.
“There’s probably a lot of pressure on us as All-Ireland champions but that’s where we are and it’s still a good place to be.”