Northern light burns brighter
KEITH DUGGANlooks at how Donegal manager Jim McGuinness has completely revolutionised the county’s playing style and fortunes
“Brian McEniff used to be able to pull a boy down from the side of a mountain with a black curly
head on him and he’d be a star. Donegal had that natural ability. But now the game is different.”
– Joe Kernan, June 2012
DONEGAL WERE All-Ireland champions but looked dead on their feet against Armagh in the Ulster semi-final of 1993. June 27th was, according to Paddy Downey who was in the press box in Breffni Park, “the hottest day of this chameleon summer”.
Armagh, young and ambitious, had matched the temperature in more than just the colour of their shirts. With a few minutes to go Brian McEniff sent in a young substitute by the name of John Duffy, who quickly clipped a point and then added a sublime equalising point deep in injury time to rob the day from Armagh.
A week later, Duffy was rewarded with a starting place and continued to torment Armagh with an outrageous left-foot goal. That opened the gates: Donegal won by 2-16 to 1-7 and McEniff introduced more young faces, including a skinny, athletic forward named Jim McGuinness.
Strangely, the Glenties man had been part of the All-Ireland winning panel the previous September; a teenager on a veteran team. But he made his championship debut a summer later. That day was an interesting crossroads. Within a decade, Armagh had transformed their fortunes, winning their first All-Ireland title and establishing the blueprint for physically imposing, ultra-disciplined ball teams with a clearly-defined game plan and no little skill.
McGuinness and Duffy, meanwhile, spent the next six years playing together on promising Donegal teams that never got to light the cigar.
Duffy was the embodiment of what Donegal football was supposed to be about: gifted and cavalier. Duffy also closed his Ulster championship book against Armagh in 1999. This time, Donegal lost out in a replay and the Ballyshannon man remembers the change Armagh had undergone in six years. “We scored two quick goals but they came back and it went to a replay. But those two games: they took it to a different level. Their fitness and their hitting – I had never encountered anything like it, even against Cork or Kerry or those teams. It was the first time I had experienced the benefit of the body-building in Gaelic football.”
In Thursday’s edition of the Donegal Democrat, Duffy spoke about the reinvention of the county team under Jim McGuinness. It has been a metamorphosis. Like a lot of people, he can’t quite get his head around the speed with which the Glenties man has transformed a dissolute and demoralised group of free-style footballers into what they have become. He is excited not just about this season but in terms of the bigger picture and he believes the sudden talk of Donegal as contenders is justified.
“I don’t see anything wrong with being confident about a team,” he reasons. “Why not? Players thrive on it. Kerry teams are spoken of like that all the time. Look, there is no reason that if this year can be Cork’s year or Dublin’s year it can’t be Donegal’s year. It is clear Donegal are as well prepared as any team in Ireland has ever been.”
After their deconstruction of Derry, Donegal were subject to flattery from unusual quarters.
On the Sunday Game, where the team had been pilloried last summer, Pat Spillane acknowledged they are travelling at impressive speed. The praise drew suspicions: one possible explanation was the Kerry man was due to participate in a subsequently cancelled GAA road show in Letterkenny on Tuesday.
But Joe Brolly, the former Derry player who had been equally hostile to the defensive system Donegal used last year, wrote what amounted to a concession letter in a Sunday newspaper. It was as if Donegal-Derry was his oracle for the football future and it frightened him. He spoke about the code words used against Derry and described Donegal as “the hardest-hitting Gaelic football team I have ever seen.”