Seventy minutes from the Promised Land

Seventy minutes from the Promised Land! Donegal meet Cork on Sunday in the biggest game ever for the county. We have been here before, and it doesn’t get any easier.

Seventy minutes from the Promised Land! Donegal meet Cork on Sunday in the biggest game ever for the county. We have been here before, and it doesn’t get any easier.

Last year it was the Dubs, but at that stage Donegal were riding on the crest of a wave that had just engulfed the county because of the manner of the extra-time defeat of Kildare in the quarter-final.

An even bigger scalp - that of Kerry - was added this year, and yet they have still only reached base camp of the Errigal that is the All-Ireland Championship.

The evolution of the Donegal senior team under Jim McGuinness continues with the bar rising with each hurdle. If Dublin was a tough ask for Donegal in 2011, then Cork is the ultimate test this year.

And yet Donegal supporters - and more importantly - the players and management travel to Croke Park on Sunday next confident that they can take the ultimate step and reach an All-Ireland senior final for the second time in their history.

That confidence and self-belief is the cornerstone of the improvement that has been achieved under Jim McGuinness in the short period of just over 18 months. Played 11, won 10. That is the sort of championship record that belongs to the Kerrys, the Corks or the Tyrones of recent vintage.

Donegal are now serious contenders and under Jim McGuinness it is hard to imagine that they won’t be serious contenders for a number of years to come.

Apart from the confidence and belief, fitness has been improved and a game plan has been devised. The plan has been tweaked according to each opposition.

The plan by itself will never be enough. It helps that the players are at one in carrying out the plan devised by McGuinness and Gallagher.

In every game to date - and even last year - Donegal are dictating the terms of how games are played. Just think about that. It is worth repeating. It is not something that would have been associated with Donegal teams of the past.

Of course, as Rory Gallagher says in an interview elsewhere in this special section, winning matches helps. His namesake from Kilcar - the Revs Rory - put it best with his record breaking video, ‘Jimmy’s Winning Matches’.

It is a bit of a cliche, but winning matches creates a good feeling and that has certainly happened with the present bunch of players.

Getting heads right and putting in a performance is the general way that the Donegal management and players put forward as the perfect preparation for not just Sunday’s game, but for every game.

The Donegal improvement has been the subject of much praise already this year, especially in the scoring exploits of the front men. However, there are also questions being raised about Donegal’s ability to respond if they have to chase a deficit of four or five points.

While Plan A will, no doubt, be to edge ahead early on and stay in front, there is also no doubt that Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher will have plans in place should Donegal have to chase the game. Remember, they had to do so last year in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Kildare and did so effectively.

A lot of the talk in the build-up has been the need for Colm McFadden to have greater support in the scoring responsibilities. After looking at the Kerry game on video a number of times, I was amazed at the amount of unseen work done by Michael Murphy, who has come under scrutiny because of his lack of scores.

It is just part of the McGuinness plan and Murphy, as captain, just plays his part. As does all of the team. Looking at that video, Mark McHugh probably deserved man of the match, even ahead of Colm McFadden, such was his display.

But the Kerry game will count for nothing on Sunday next. Paddy McGrath will have to be at his sharpest again. Paul Durcan will again be a key figure, especially as Cork are so strong around the middle of the field. He will also have to be commanding in his own area with Nicholas Murphy around.

It will be just another tough day at the office for the Donegal defence, but then these players have been well tested over the last twelve months by Tyrone, Dublin and Kerry.

The opposite is also true. It is going to be a very tough day at the office for the Cork attack and I doubt if they have met the same test in that period.

Any memories they have of the last meeting in 2009 will be of little help to them.

The likely return of Neil Gallagher to midfield is a guaranteed plus, especially as the big Glenswilly man has the physique and the experience to match any combination. His coolness in possession and ability to give quality ball will be needed and his inclusion will allow both Ryan Bradley and Rory Kavanagh a licence to attack.

Up front, the aforementioned Michael Murphy will want to put one record straight. In the semi-final last year, he failed to get on the scoresheet, a very rare occurrence. He will put that right on Sunday and expect other front men to show up on the scoreboard also.

In last year’s semi-final Patrick McBrearty was only used as a substitute, but he has now become an integral part of the team. So too has Leo McLoone, who took a while to make the transition from half-back to corner-forward to centre half-forward. McLoone has the x-factor that can unhinge any team, and he showed in the win over Kerry that he was willing to put his body on the line for the team.

It will take that and more to get over the line on Sunday but this Donegal team and Jim McGuinness already know that.

They have the proudest record of any team - and that includes 1992 - that has represented the county in any 18 month period.

Let’s hope that record continues and they certainly deserve the fullest support on Sunday next.