Donegal have just final leg to climb


CHAMPIONSHIP 2012 ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL:STRIP AWAY the frenzy and park the emotion just for a minute. Ignore the tears that spilled from fans in every row of every stand and the clasping, grasping hugs shared by whole clumps of Donegal supporters. Forget it all and get down to brass tacks. Donegal are in an All-Ireland final for the first time in 20 years and they’ve beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork to get there. Hillary and Norgay never saw a mountain that size.

That’s not the way to look at it though. At least not in Jim McGuinness world it’s not. In this world it’s the mountain that changes, not the climber. It’s the mountain that forgets all it ever knew, all that ever worked before.

And still it finds Donegal too nimble, too agile, too quick. The upshot was they beat Cork here by 0-16 to 1-11. The reality was that they should have done it by plenty more.

Cork’s goal came in injury-time after a bout of ill-advised Olé-Oléing from Donegal that will presumably have earned those involved an afternoon of writing out lines on a blackboard.

They kicked 14 wides, including more in the second half than in the entire quarter-final against Kerry. They turned what had been a tense and airless game at half-time into a tumbling cascade by the end, leaving the stadium (a) in paroxysms and (b) wondering just who has it in them to prevent a second All-Ireland title heading to the hills. Fancy saying either of those things 12 months ago.

“When I took over the job,” said McGuinness later, “you wouldn’t believe the amount of people who said I was off my rocker. I was off my head. Donegal is a poisoned chalice. Them players will let you down.

“And it has been the opposite to that. Every single thing we’ve asked them to do, they’ve done it. They’ve made a commitment to their county jersey. They have brought football on in the county and they’re in a final now on the back of that and I just hope we can go the final leg of the journey.”

Some may predict they won’t, but nobody will say they can’t. They made Cork look like analogue beings in a digital world. The worst mistake you can make is to think it’s just about matching their intensity. It’s about so much more – being smart and staying calm, breaking when the break is on and holding back when it isn’t.

First they broke Cork’s will, then they came for their legs. No matter how well you prepare, the challenge of seeing an ocean of yellow shirts between you and the goalposts, and having no time to settle or think, must be a killer.

And it isn’t just a matter of numbers either because they tackle with heft and with precision when you come to wade in their waters. They conceded only one point from a free all day.

Their dismantling of Cork in the second half was exhilarating to watch. They had gone in at the break a point ahead, with the first small signs that Cork’s resistance was beginning to wane pockmarking the closing minutes of that first half. One extreme period of Cork patience around the Donegal 45 had ended with a smart ball into Donncha O’Connor that screamed for a runner to appear off his shoulder. When none arrived, O’Connor got swallowed up and the ball broke loose.

Within 20 seconds, Mark McHugh was fisting the go-ahead point after making an 80-yard run to get on the end of the break.

The point itself didn’t appear crucial at the time but the trudge in the Cork players as they tried to track back was the first sign this was all becoming a bit too much of a head-wreck. For that reason, half-time looked to have come just when Cork needed it. Sure, they were going in 0-8 to 0-7 down but at least it was a chance to recalibrate and restore calm.

They had looked like the side with the better goal prospects and if one came in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, it would put Donegal in a situation they’re not used to. The mountain would dictate to the climber for once.

As it was, Donegal were never caught. They came out and kicked the first three points and as soon as Aidan Walsh managed one for Cork in reply, they went straight down the other end and nabbed another from Anthony Thompson. When Colm O’Neill hit the crossbar on 46 minutes, it felt like the day was done. Donegal held a four-point lead at that stage and never once looked like giving it up.

So on they go, to a final nobody can claim they don’t deserve.

Whatever happens now, they’ve changed the game. They’ve made middle-ranking counties begin to ask “why-can’t-we” themselves and have roused the slumbering higher-ups into action too. They’ve taken a sport that at times seemed moribund and dreamt it up anew.

Whether they win the final or not now, Donegal are like one of those everlasting birthday candles. Blow all you like, they’re not going out anytime soon.

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