Day of Days

As a Donegal supporter, Sunday was typical of the days we live for, the days that we should probably expect under Jim McGuinness.  But surely none of us had dreamed of this outcome.  Certainly not me.  I was fairly sure that the potential existed, but that the execution was too big a task.  But Jim McGuinness got his players to go back to a seemingly bottomless well and summon a performance that left me shell shocked.    Most of us would say that the semi-final win over Cork in 2012 was our finest performance in the McGuinness era, but Sunday tops that.  We wrested control of the game from the heaviest of favourites and reigning champions and ran riot in the ten minute periods before and after half time.  It was awesome stuff altogether.

Unlike the performance against Cork 2012, there no such context for this win.  Back then, we had swept Down aside in the Ulster Final and the realisation of what we had developed since that (in)famous day in Croke Park the previous August began to dawn.  So far this year, we won but didn’t impress in the league, finishing with a very flat performance against Monaghan.  There were encouraging signs against Derry in the first round, but it was a case of ‘green shoots’ and not much else.  Antrim was a non-event, other than the performance of Odhran MacNiallais and a cameo from Jigger.  Monaghan was an arm wrestle, but one where it looked like we were always the better team.  Armagh was an odd game.  Sunday, in some respects, came out of nowhere.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Dublin did butcher two clear cut goal chances while leading by five points in the first half.  If either went in, we were in deeper trouble.  If both had gone in, we were almost certainly too far behind to mount a comeback.  But, the game isn’t played in terms of ifs and buts, the winner is determined by goals and points on the scoreboard at the end.  The Dubs still had their chances in the second half, but they reverted to the sort of shooting that I thought was a thing of the past.    I’ll not dwell too much on the rest of their performance, as that is not really the story, but the sort of issues that were there in the background all along – their defensive set up, their midfield, were brutally exposed.  Plenty of other teams have had their chance this year but no-one has gone out to take them on with the conviction of this Donegal team.

Ryan McHugh’s first goal, for instance, while brilliantly engineered (a turnover in the Dublin penalty area and a great run from McHugh) slid in under Rory O’Carroll – Diarmuid Connolly’s effort (a much more accomplished forward) was rebuffed by Paul Durcan, who has surely done enough to gain his second All Star.  Big games can be decided on such small margins.  But, Donegal missed enough of their own chances.  Ryan McHugh himself, in a moment eerily similar to Colm McFadden in 2011, ended up with a point when the goal was at his mercy.  I said so at the time.  People chided me for it.   Right they were too, but for me, the clock could not tick fast enough in the second half. I kept waiting for a disaster to strike.  I met a few Dubs afterwards and they could tell I was shook.  I won’t lie, it was highly emotional on Sunday afternoon.  And that with not a drink taken.

Again, our composure (on the pitch) was so impressive.  It would have been easy to wilt under the pressure of the Dublin shooting in the first half, but we didn’t seem flustered at all.  Even after the first goal chance, we attacked and got the next score.  That’s been a theme throughout the Championship, our composure on the pitch.  When we conceded goals against Monaghan and Armagh, we panicked in the stands, but the players on the pitch never looked like they were flustered.  They play like a team that has ultimate belief in what they are about and where they are going.  I wonder if this is what Johnstown House was about.  Refining that belief to deal with the Dubs early pressure?

It was a complete team performance.  Ryan McHugh scooped the man of the match award, and who could quibble after he scored 2-2 from play, but there were terrific performances from men in gold all over the pitch.  The full back line was excellent.  Everything you want to see in your defenders, and Paddy McGrath contributed further up the pitch too.  Karl Lacey is not the player he was physically, but his touches and influence are key, and he scored a point for good measure.  Frank was his usual self, and it was great to see him kicking a point also. Anthony Thompson ran all day, showing great coolness to set up Ryan for his second goal.  The midfield sector was outstanding.  Neil Gallagher and Odhran MacNiallais, the nominal pairing were very good, Christy Toye helped change the course of the game, and Rory Kavanagh and Michael Murphy played their part in no small way.

It’s worth pointing out the use of Christy.  I think all of us were surprised to see David Walsh starting.  If anything, I thought Christy and Rory would split 70 minutes.  But, it seems as if Walsh started to allow Christy to finish.  That’s just my own take on it, but I would see this as more evidence as what has been excellent management of Christy’s game time this year.  The plan to use Paddy McBrearty from the bench proved to be the right choice, again.   We wondered about Rory’s fitness, especially during the first half, but he lasted 60 minutes and even managed a point.  He seemed to get more comfortable as the game progressed.

Special mention has to go to Colm McFadden.  More than one person publically believed he had it in him, that he would thrive against a fast and loose defence, but I didn’t see it coming.  It wasn’t a perfect performance by any means, some of his shooting belied a lack of confidence, but the goal was so well taken and his work rate, especially in assisting for Ryan McHugh’s second half goal was outstanding.   That wee smile after the second half goal in front of The Hill was priceless.  I’m delighted for him and it’s just another great decision by Jim McGuinness – he knows his players better than any of us.

The narrative since the game is that Jim McGuinness outwitted Jim Gavin tactically.  I don’t know if I see it in those terms.  My take on it is that Jim Gavin has probably been a bit naive, but Donegal didn’t really do anything they don’t usually do.  We defended intensely, in numbers.  Neil Gallagher spent a bit of time at full forward.  We were cute at midfield, kicking the ball on to players running towards the Dublin goal from deep – while Dublin half back line were running in the other direction.  That was smart.  But, I think what Sunday showed was that Jim McGuinness’ greatest gift to Donegal is the belief he has instilled in our players.   In 2011, perhaps that was lacking, even if we were a million miles away from where we were when we left Crossmaglen in 2010.  When in the past has a Donegal team ever come to Croke Park and played like we have in the semi finals of 2012 and 2014?  The players are familiar to us from past disappointments.  Jim McGuinness is the x factor.

I have, like many Donegal people I’m sure, been in a state of euphoria since Sunday.  There’s been some triumphalism from some quarters, and also a desire to go and revisit certain articles written in the lead up to the game.  Not me.  I am solely concerned with what I saw from Donegal, I have no interest in anything else.  Let’s continue to savour it.  Thankfully, thoughts don’t seem to have turned to Kerry just yet, but they will in the weeks ahead.  It would be a terrible shame if we don’t go on to win it all now, but whatever happens in just over two weeks time doesn’t take away from what I experienced on Sunday.  There is nothing like the sense of pride in our players, our manager and our County I felt on Sunday evening and still feel today.  I don’t really feel the need think about anything else right now.

Until Victory, Always.

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