About quarter past 10 last Thursday night in the hallway outside conference room three in Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness was just wrapping up the pre-Ulster final interviews.
A waist-coated gentleman stood slightly ajar, having listened attentively for 20 minutes or more, but his attire suggested he wasn’t one of the assembled media.
Just as the dictaphones were clicked off for the final time, Michael O’Donnell, the well-known photographer from Glenties who has been following the fortunes of the Donegal team from black and white to colour, approached his neighbour McGuinness.
“You wouldn’t be able to get into this picture Jim please with this man,” O’Donnell asked. “He’s an Armagh man. He’s just got married today.”
McGuinness had just charmed all with his insightful thoughts on football and when the duties were done he shook the groom’s hand, stood in for the photograph and quipped: “Congratulations - but be careful, it could all go downhill from here!” Laughter filled the hallway.
With seven successive Ulster championship wins under his belt as manager, success over Down in Sunday’s final will copper-fasten the growing reputation of McGuinness.
No Donegal manager has ever won successive Ulster championships, with no team from the province ever taking home the Anglo Celt consecutively having to plot the minefield from the preliminary round.
Having been involved three times as a losing finalist as a player at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones and being the man who now lays the stones to plot another final victory, McGuinness doesn’t underestimate the worth of the provincial championship.
Plenty of things in the world have seen their values slip from black to red in recent times but the Ulster championship is certainly not one of them.
“It’s a big opportunity for both counties,” McGuinness said. “If we were in the Ulster final next year and the year after and the year after, I personally would feel it would have the same value to it.
“When we were in Belfast for the launch of the championship there were nine mangers there and it’s down to two now so I feel in a very privileged position. The players feel the same way.
“They haven’t been blessed with a number of medals in their careers and this is an opportunity to get another one. That in itself is a huge carrot on a stick.
“As a manger you just hope the work that you’ve done and work they’ve done will stand to them. They can go out and follow on from the gameplan and the work we did in the winter and express themselves.”
Expressing themselves is perhaps the prime differential for Donegal’s players between this year and last. As well as winning that coveted provincial crown and reaching the All-Ireland semi-final, had there been an award for the most talked about team, Donegal would’ve stormed the board.
Some accused McGuinness of tactical negativity, while others commended the new and somewhat novel approach offered by the Donegal manager. After years of black eyes and bloody noses, though, the Donegal of 2011 had restored the county’s pride.
McGuinness, like every game, tailored his tactics to what he thought best suited to beating Dublin on the day of the All-Ireland semi-final. While the knives were being sharpened as he made those utterances in the press room in the bowels of Croke Park last August, he made no apologies for the unorthodox approach having broken no rules and added that his side would continue to develop.
“We have put a lot of work into it,” McGuinness said of the forward thinking policies since implemented. “We realise we didn’t get over the line last year. We kicked just six points in an All-Ireland semi-final and we had to kick on from that.
“We want to bring to the table something we didn’t last year and that’s more expansive football in the final third. We’d be happy having done that in the games so far but we want to push it further, while maintaining our good work defensively.”
Having defeated Cavan 1-16 to 1-10 in the Ulster championship opener in May, Donegal then gobbled up Derry, who only put up a puff-powdered resistance in the quarter-final one murky Saturday evening in June. Tyrone would provide the sternest challenge to date.
Last year, Donegal showed resilience to come from four points down to defeat the three-time All-Ireland winners 2-6 to 0-9 thanks to late goals from Colm McFadden and substitute Dermot Molloy.
Tyrone have been written off so frequently in recent seasons, it detracts from the level of surprise when they come back stronger.
Mickey Harte plotted away all spring and after sealing promotion with seven wins from seven in the National Football League Division Two, Tyrone left the Gaelic Grounds in Armagh with an Ulster championship quarter-final win, 0-19 to 1-13.
Harte hasn’t won three All-Irelands from a stationary position and the Tyrone that took to the field on June’s last Saturday had been primed for the challenge of Donegal.
It was chess in coloured jerseys, but Donegal, just, came though 0-12 to 0-10 in perhaps the most mature performance under the stewardship of McGuinness.
“Tyrone made life very difficult for us,” he said of the Ulster semi-final. “They had a very focused and determined system. It wasn’t easy for our lads but we kicked 12 points and we were very happy with that.
“On another day I would feel that was 15 or 16, it was only 12 because of the players we were playing against and the quality of their system.
“Tyrone have excellent players that were unbelievably well coached for that game by Mickey Harte. They were ready for our system and asked a lot of questions of us but it was nothing we didn’t expect. I expected that of Mickey Harte and Tony Donnelly and our players were expecting it.
“For me, the most pleasing thing was even when all those questions were asked, we didn’t press the panic button. We held our composure and worked our way through the game.
“We managed to squeeze five points in a row at a very important time of the game but they continued to ask a lot of our players. Every player on the pitch held their composure at the tightest part of the game.
“It would’ve been devastating if Martin Penrose had scored a goal at the end. Like any championship match you put so much into, you hope to come out at the other end.
“Even a draw would’ve been a hard thing to deal with. To go through it was very encouraging.”
Maybe those from outside don’t have the same level of appreciation of just how difficult it is to win an Ulster championship.
As McGuinness touched on the notion earlier, just two managers, James McCartan of Down and himself, are in with a chance of the nine that attended the launch at the Titanic Building in Belfast less then three months ago.
“Every team in Ulster feels as though they can win it and that’s the bottom line,” McGuinness said. “You’ve got two teams in the other three provinces that are favourites every year.
“You’ve nine in Ulster that genuinely believe. This is our fourth game in the competition and if you’re in another province then you’d already be in an All-Ireland quarter-final or a semi-final.
“I wouldn’t change that. If you were getting a bye into the final or beating a Division Four team I don’t think it would hold the same value. It’s why the medal is so precious.”
Nineteen long years passed since McGuinness, the scraggly-haired teen, sat on the bench as Brian McEniff’s vintage of 1992 toppled Derry and took the Anglo Celt Cup back to the Diamond in Donegal Town. The long-suffering and hunger drove Donegal to victory 12 months ago.
Of all the teams in Ulster, Down carry the most mystique. Their three All-Ireland in the 1960’s changed the landscape of football in the country.
Thereafter, they slipped under the radar but popped their head above the surface of the water to take Sam Maguire north again with two stylish victories, over Meath in 1991 and then Dublin three years later.
McCartan was a bloodline of both those fantastic wins. Even two years ago, after an extra-time victory over Donegal at MacCumhaill Park set them on their way, Down defeated Kerry and Kildare at Croke Park before losing to Cork by a kick of the ball, 0-16 to 0-15, in the All-Ireland final.
Rather perversely, Down’s supporters have seen them appear in two All-Ireland finals since they last won Ulster, defeating Tyrone 1-17 to 1-11 in 1994.
Their last final appearance was the 2003 final against the same opponents, drawing an incredible game 4-8 to 1-17, before suffering a heavy 0-23 to 1-5 loss in the replay. Benny Coulter, Liam Doyle and Dan Gordon, three of the great contemporaries in Ulster, are the remnants from nine years ago.
“It’s going to be a 50-50 match and we’re preparing for it like that,” McGuinness added. “I know Down are in the same boat as we were ourselves last year.
“Their senior players, like Benny Coulter in the last round against Monaghan, played through the pain barrier, because he knew this was his opportunity and fair play to him, you have to admire that in him.
“He’s got it and Dan Gordon’s got it and they’ll be pushing their camp forward, pushing everything to get over the line. We’re aware of that.”
With the pretenders to one side and only the contenders remaining, whoever wins the battle will triumph in the war. After the stranglehold of Armagh and Tyrone in Ulster from 1999 till last year, this is a more diplomatic era in Ulster. Donegal want to put their stamp things.
But just like McGuinness said to the groom in Jackson’s Hotel last Thursday, Donegal can be congratulated with things to date but must be careful and make sure things don’t go downhill from here.
“If we can execute what we want to do, then we’ll put ourselves in a good position to go and win the game and if we don’t then we put ourselves in a game of Russian roulette where anything can happen,” McGuinness said. “That’s the bottom line.
“The Ulster championship is a very precious medal and it’s one they don’t have. We were in the same boat last year and our players really wanted it.
“We’re in a different situation this year. There’s an opportunity to do something really special. We’ve an opportunity to go back to back, something no Donegal team has ever done, and no Ulster team has ever won it from the preliminary round two years in a row. Our goals are now different but the hunger is the exact same.”