NO matter what happened, we were all warned, both Donegal and Tyrone would still be in the championship this morning, May 27.
And so, here we are, still in the championship after the most tumultuously built-up of first round provincial matches, arguably, since Down’s meeting with Derry away back in 1994.
But yesterday’s resounding 2-10 to 0-10 win over Tyrone was the real laying down of a marker.
Donegal and Tyrone may be in the same place now but one suspects they just might be going in different directions.
Publicly, since the sun-tanned Donegal panel touched down on the tarmac at Dublin airport from Dubai in early January, all the talk had been about Tyrone and about May 26.
McGuinness’s priorities were continually questioned throughout the Allianz League, especially when the music stopped and Donegal were the ones left standing with no chair. But it’s championship that matters.
“The only difference this year was that we were relegated,” McGuinness said of Donegal’s preparations between this year and the two before. “It was the media who made the story out of that. We had the exact same approach as we had last year.
“There was a lot of talk about putting all the eggs into one basket, but it was the same last year and the same the year before. That’s what we do – championship football.
“It was a media spin that got the whole debate going. Next year we will put all our eggs in that basket again. After the All-Ireland there were only two weeks until the draw was made. Tyrone was always going to be a very tough challenge.”
McGuinness’s convictions on just what competition is most important to him are consistent. But there’s a different side to him when it comes to matchday tactics.
Yesterday, rumours flittered around Ballybofey all morning about the welfare of his panel, many of whom were only coming back to fitness. Their priority, too, was May 26.
Mark McHugh’s injured hamstring meant the All-Star started on the substitutes’ bench and he was joined there by the current Footballer of the Year, Karl Lacey.
It was the first time the Donegal Town native didn’t start a championship match since the Ulster final of 2004 - but there was a plan.
“I wanted to finish with the strongest team and I wanted to finish with the quality on the pitch that could see the game out,” he said.
“We had really good decision makers on the pitch in the last 20 minutes. That took us over the line.”
Lacey’s introduction brought 11 minutes into the second half brought Donegal’s crowd to its feet.
At that stage, Tyrone has pegged back a two-point interval deficit to level at 0-9 to Donegal’s 1-6 and things were certainly in the melting pot. Alongside Lacey was Ross Wherity, making his championship debut a day after his 25th birthday.
Patrick McBrearty, two minutes later, spun away and burst past Dermot Carlin and Martin Penrose and squared for Wherity to palm home a goal with his first touch of a ball in championship football.
It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
“The short version would be that he changed the game,” McGuinness said of Wherity.
“It was a situation where Tyrone were getting the better of us in the middle of the park.
“They were getting under Neil Gallagher, trying to stop him from jumping and they had three men in the pocket to pick up breaks.
“We pushed Martin McElhinney in there to give us three options and it opened up. We started to get shots away ourselves and we started to get space to operate.
“When Ross came in he started to pick up the breaks and started to use the ball really well. He brought the fight to them.”
McBrearty’s contribution, which brought him the man of the match award, was also considered by his manager.
“It just showed today that he is maturing all the time,” McGuinness said of McBrearty.”
“He is maturing as a player and is maturing as a person. That is why we brought him into the team two years ago when we played Antrim here.
“That is a big plus. Now, all of a sudden, we have Patrick, Michael and Colm all of the same ilk. That is what any manager wants – inside forwards who can equally distribute the scores.”
Donegal, after perhaps the longest build-up ever to a championship match now have four weeks to prepare for an Ulster semi-final, against Derry or Down - the two sides they have defeated in the last two Ulster finals.
To follow McGuinness’s formula, one that has now seen him win nine matches in succession in the province, there will be no talk about the Anglo-Celt just yet.
The next match, that Ulster semi-final in four weeks, is the most important. That’s where the eggs are going for the next few weeks.
“It’s great from our perspective that we have a month now and we are still in there in the championship proper.
“The bottom line is -wWe have won in the first round of the championship. I have said all along that our preparation was for this day and now our preparation is for the next day.
“We’ll not be getting carried away about this game and we won’t be getting caught up in any hysteria in the county.
“The players know where they’re at. They have had the exact same approach to each game. We prepare as best we can, we respect the opposition and we try to get the game plan right.”
“Those eggs now go into a different basket, one that will, after Sunday, be marked with the card of Derry or Down.”