Derry seek to echo Donegal’s All-Ireland success ahead of their year of years

There are a lot of similarities between Derry this season and Donegal in 2012, but believing it is your year is one thing - making it happen is another

It is Ulster quarter-final weekend. Derry are playing Donegal. One team is riding the crest of a wave, defending the Ulster title, most people’s idea of a coming force. The other is gathering itself afresh after a couple of pretty indifferent championship seasons.

One team ended last year coming up just short in an epic All-Ireland semi-final and have designs on going the whole way this time around. The other is the epitome of a middle-rank crew, dangerous on their day but well outside the reckoning for Sam Maguire.

One team is consciously morphing from dour, defensive anti-football to the sort of more expansive game that they’ll need for an assault on the big prize. The other is still trying out different bits and pieces style-wise, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Have you clocked it yet? Why would we be talking in the general rather than the specific? It’s because the year in our little set-up here is not 2024.


The year is 2012.

Donegal are Derry and Derry are Donegal. The game is in Ballybofey rather than Celtic Park. Jim McGuinness is still Jim McGuinness but sub John Brennan in for Mickey Harte and the old switcheroo is complete.

Granted, it’s not a precise one-to-one comparison. Donegal weren’t actually as well-fancied at the start of the 2012 championship as Derry are now. They were 20-1 before a ball was kicked – Kerry, Cork, Dublin, Kildare (!), Tyrone and Mayo were all ahead of them in the betting. As we know, Derry today are seen as one of only three teams that can go all the way.

But the broader point stands. Derry at this point in 2024 look and feel a lot like Donegal did at the same juncture in 2012. They play host in Celtic Park on Saturday night carrying much the same energy as McGuinness’s team did in MacCumhaill Park 12 years ago. They are in that place where every team dreams of getting to – everyone fit, everyone focused, all bases covered. Knowing they just have to go and do their thing and they will take care of business.

“It’s a gradual process,” says 2012 All Star wing-back Frank McGlynn. “It’s very difficult to improve everything in one year and get to the pitch of where you want to be in all areas. In previous years, you would have been going into games with nerves and doubts, wondering, ‘Are we as fit?’ or, ‘Have we the work done?’

“All those thoughts seemed to evaporate. You were going into games knowing that you were prepared. You had the tactics work done, everyone was clear in their roles. That leads to a certain level of calmness around the dressing room. You know that you can actually go and play your best football without having anxiety or the nerves that may have been there in previous years.”

McGlynn would not want you to get the wrong idea, of course. He is a Donegal man in the week of a Derry game so he understandably doesn’t want to overdo it in the admiration stakes. He won’t rule out an upset on Saturday and expresses the hope, like all Donegal people should, that Derry left their All-Ireland behind them last year. That said, he knows what it is to be in the place Derry are now.

“You’re shaking hands before a game with the best forwards in the country and to be walking over to shake hands thinking to yourself, ‘I’ve got you, fitness-wise’ or, ‘We’ve got you, as a group’, there’s great confidence in that. In the pivotal moments in games, that confidence means you go looking for the ball rather than shying away from it.

“Derry’s attacking side of football has been excellent throughout the league. They attack from all angles, from corner-back to corner-forward. Nobody is shying away from the ball in pivotal moments. In the league final against Dublin, they were aggressive on the Dublin kick-out when they needed to be. That’s always a positive sign of a group, that they have the belief to go after that.”

Some of the parallels between the two sides are uncanny. Derry went 11 years without beating Tyrone in any game. They didn’t have so much as a McKenna Cup victory over Tyrone between 2011 and 2022 so when they thrashed them by 1-18 to 0-10 two years ago, they didn’t need to be convinced of the worth of it. Do that to Tyrone – All-Ireland champions at the time, remember – and there was no telling what the ceiling might be.

Likewise, when Donegal were coming through under McGuinness first time around, they knew the road to success had to go through Tyrone. So much so that they famously trained with some of their players wearing Tyrone jerseys, just to get them in the mood. When they beat them in an Ulster semi-final in 2011, they felt the significance of the day in the bones.

“Moments along the road are so important,” says McGlynn. “Obviously when Jim came in initially, he was very straight up about what the aim was. He stated it quite clearly – it was Ulster titles and it was the All-Ireland. But you don’t get there all at once, you have to go through the steps. Beating Tyrone in 2011 was a huge game. If you weren’t believing after that…”

And there’s the rub. Belief is such a mercurial thing. For the likes of Kerry and the Dubs, belief comes free. But for the counties that might have a team that could compete for an All-Ireland once every couple of decades, history is a tax on belief. You only pay it off with victories you’re not used to producing.

“The big one for us in 2012 was Kerry,” says Eamon McGee, corner-back on that team. “That was our career game. Even though Kerry were probably on the way down at the time and Cork were a better team, Kerry are a symbol. You beat Kerry and you walk out of Croke Park telling yourself that you’re well fit for whoever is thrown at you. Ulster titles were grand but beating Kerry in Croke Park made you believe it was all possible.

“I think that’s the why the league final was such a big thing for Derry. That was their career win. That was beating the Dubs in Croke Park with a trophy on the line. And even though it was on penalties, they were the better team. The Dubs always back themselves but Derry took them on and handled it.

“Before that league final, I wasn’t totally sold on Derry. Because you have to show you can go to Croke Park and do it, realistically against either Dublin or Kerry. Now they have that under their belt. They went toe-to-toe with Dublin and they beat them. That’s big for them.”

The question now is how Derry handle it. They have the players. They have the game plan. They have the belief. But come the middle of next month, they toe the same starting line as 15 other teams. They don’t get extra points for going from Division Four to Division One. Their Ulster titles, whether they add a third-in-a-row in the coming weeks or not, count for nothing.

They will be six – and possibly seven – games from an All-Ireland. They have to go and do it. Believing it is your year is one thing. Making it happen is another.

“It’s all about the immediate,” says McGee. “You have to boil it down to each individual game. And each individual training session. Jim talked about Ulsters and All-Irelands from the very start but when we got down to it in the middle of the season, he wasn’t projecting forward.

“It was all that very boring, clichéd stuff that people are sick of hearing about. What are our key performance indicators? Have we hit them tonight? Why not? What was that training session like? Did you train to the level of an Ulster champion? Or an All-Ireland champion? Why not? What are we at here? He was giving us the confidence and the belief but it was also a case of you need to back it up in terms of how you prepare and how you live your life.

“The danger is you wait for it to happen. When we won the league in 2007, there was a lot of talk in the media of, ‘Donegal’s time has arrived. We’re finally going to see this potential come through.’ Prior to the championship starting, there was a few that were tipping us for Ulster ahead of Armagh and Tyrone even. But we fell flat on our face.

“That’s the thing for Derry now. You can’t start thinking that the league went so well that it’s going to be enough to bring you the rest of the way. You just have to keep challenging yourself during training and during the games to get to the level. There’s a good group in Derry and you’d imagine they will keep the standards high. Mickey Harte and Horse Devlin will make sure of it.”

It could be a year of years for Derry. But first they have to find their way through a season where everyone can see them coming. No better guides than the crowd in the other dressing room tonight.