Donegal take a listing vessel and refloat it on a wave of thrilling proportions


Donegal were the alpha, the omega and everything in between and were just a sheer joy to watch, writes MALACHY CLERKIN

It is hard to know whether Jim McGuinness is familiar with Lieut Gen Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando, the brilliant soldier to whom all other characters defer in Generation Kill, David Simon’s TV drama on the Iraq War. Whether he is or he isn’t, you get the sense he’d feel a kinship. If not in style, then certainly in strategy.

Godfather’s whole approach to warfare is based on using initiative and putting the opposition out of its own rhythm. Praising one underling’s efforts, he declares: “This kind of aggressiveness is what I mean by interrupting the enemy’s own decision-making cycle. It’s against all doctrine, but as the General often reminds me, doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Donegal didn’t just dominate football in winning this year’s All-Ireland. They reimagined it. They took a game that had been listing for a few years and made it a thrilling experience. In so doing, they interrupted the decision-making cycle of every team they met. Each game Donegal suited up for this summer was played on their terms, not the opposition’s. When you consider the opposition – Cavan, Derry, Tyrone, Down, Kerry, Cork and Mayo – you can’t but marvel at the achievement.

The best trick they pulled was to convince the rest of the country that they were all about getting bodies behind the ball. Nobody worked them out because they constantly shifted emphasis, from game to game and from half to half and even from phase to phase.

This is why you’d have to be wary of the pat observations that say back-to-back titles will be beyond them because the rest of the teams will have gotten used to them by next summer. Who’s to say that their evolution ended with Michael Murphy raising Sam?

Whatever comes next, we can for now salute them as the most entertaining part of a thoroughly enjoyable summer. It got motoring early and finished with a fizz. By the second weekend in June, the championship had seen 19 games, of which nine were decided by three points or less. The games where the margin was more than a kick of a ball included Cork beating Kerry and Sligo beating Galway.

Yes, there were occasional beatdowns handed out but most counties had their day at least once. Leitrim hopped up off the canvas after a 22-point tonking from Mayo to beat Wicklow, recording their first ever win in the qualifiers. Tipperary took yet another Munster championship defeat by a half-trying Kerry team on the chin and climbed the qualifiers ladder all the way to the last 12. Longford beat Laois for the first time since 1968, Antrim met and beat Galway for the first time ever.

Along the way, the usual hotchpotch of quirks and quibbles raised their head. The Seánie Johnston imbroglio went on for so long that in the end the only thing that could save the poor chap was to hand him a hurley and a helmet and hope for the best.

We saw Eoghan O’Gara score the first ever point awarded in Croke Park on the back of video evidence, only for the authorities to tell us that we didn’t see that at all at all. They swore that linesman Maurice Deegan didn’t look at the big screen before informing referee Marty Duffy of the original mistake. We shrugged and got on with the next game.

By the business end, it was hard to argue with most of the eight teams left standing. Donegal, Mayo, Cork, Dublin, Kerry and Kildare would have been most people’s top six at the start of the year and so it proved, with Laois and Down the also-rans who plugged on the longest.

Kildare got trampled underfoot by Cork and Kerry got bounced by Donegal on the same afternoon.

Mayo came out ahead of Dublin in one nerve-jangler of a semi-final, Donegal simply broke Cork’s will in the other. For the signature score of the year, Mark McHugh scooped up spilled possession from Donncha O’Connor after the Cork inside-forward ran out of support 20 metres from the Donegal goal. Three passes and 80 metres later, McHugh was punching the ball over the bar under the Davin Stand.

It was the 35th minute of the All-Ireland semi-final and from there until the end of the year Donegal were never once behind. Indeed, the only time they weren’t ahead was the three minutes it took at the start of the final for Murphy to score the opening goal. They were the alpha, the omega and everything in between. It was a pleasure to watch.

Winter falls and we all start to wonder anew. The club championships have thrown up some of the best football of the year, with Dublin’s Ballymun Kickhams and Roscommon’s St Brigid’s sure to spend the Christmas taking umbrage at us all warming our cockles with loose talk of Crossmaglen and Dr Crokes on Paddy’s Day. Godspeed to them if they can shake us from cosy presumption.

If they need any inspiration, they need look no further than the men from the hills. When McGuinness took over, one newspaper ranked Donegal 19th in the country.

You’re not supposed to go from there to All-Ireland champions in two years, just as Brigid’s and Ballymun aren’t supposed to get in the way of Cross and Crokes next spring. But there’s nothing to say that’s how it has to be.

Doctrine is the last refuge of the unimaginative, after all.

Highs and lows

Best game

Donegal v Kerry,

All-Ireland quarter-final.

The sheer whizz bangery of Donegal meeting and beating Kerry for the first time ever takes the cake.

Honourable mentions

Mayo v Dublin; Armagh v Tyrone

Worst game

Mayo v Sligo,

Connacht final

Best story

Donegal. Plain and simple.

Their games thrummed, their support fizzed and their players never, ever stopped.

Honourable mentions

Tipperary in the qualifiers; Crossmaglen.

Worst story

Seánie Johnston. By turns annoying, attritional and absurd, it ended with a minute’s club hurling in Clane on a Saturday afternoon. Like any good saga, it went on far too long and made far too many people far too angry.

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