They hadn't won an Ulster championship match in four years, were renowned for their lack of discipline rather than adherence to it, and yet Brian McEniff confidently predicted that over the next couple of years "Donegal can get right back up there".
That was May 2011, in an interview with this newspaper, ahead of Donegal's Ulster preliminary round match against Antrim: by the end of the summer Donegal were heading right back up there, and as difficult as some people found it to watch, were only denied a place in the All-Ireland final after Dublin showed that patience is sometimes football's greatest virtue.
A year later Donegal were right back up there, and now, as he did then, McEniff – who managed Donegal to their first and only other All-Ireland football title in 1992 – credits Jim McGuiness as the mastermind of it all.
McEniff knows him better than most – christening him ‘Cher’ when he first called him into the Donegal panel, as a 19 year-old, in 1992, and indeed McEniff will always consider McGuinness the baby of that team. And although he never suspected that McGuinness would someday himself become senior manager, one of the last things McEniff did when serving on the county executive in 2010 was chair the selection committee charged with appointing a new Donegal under-21 football manager. The man they chose, unanimously, was McGuinness.
Nothing McGuinness has achieved since has surprised McEniff, and even though he will always differ on certain approaches to the game (preferring “the best method of defence is attack” philosophy) he is no less confident now of Donegal’s chances under McGuinness. “Well as of yet, we haven’t really hit the form that we would need to hit to beat the Dubs on Sunday,” says McEniff. “But I’d say you’ll see a much fresher Donegal team on Sunday. They’ve put in huge preparation, were down to Johnstown House for a period last week, and the team is in very good shape.
"But without a shadow of a doubt Dublin are a formidable team, even more so than 2011. Jim Gavin has brought a new dimension to their preparation, and they have a huge pick. Let's be honest about it. There are a million and a quarter people in the city, Donegal has 150,000.
“And Dublin are the best side that’s been around for a lot of years. Not only have they a lot of good footballers, playing on any given day, but their extended panel of 27, 28 players, any one of which could come off the bench and contribute. And this Dublin team has proved itself on many occasions.
“But they’re coming in without having had a really competitive match. The one thing in our run-in, we’ve played four Ulster teams, and they’re always tough. That’s good preparation for us, and the fact we’d a tight game against Armagh. That’s a good build-up. Dublin haven’t had a test as yet.”
What McEniff also believes, however, is that Donegal can’t just rely on their defensive strength or strategy to beat Dublin. “And the way I would like to play it mightn’t necessarily agree with Jim, but I’d say Jim has plans afoot. He won’t be just coming with plan A. He’ll have a plan B and C because Dublin are an awesome team. There’s no point in saying otherwise. Three years ago, there were two lads that didn’t play well against us, Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan, but they’re replaceable now.
“But look, Jim is always keen to learn, and he’s proved his worth. He’s a highly qualified guy.”
McEniff also believes that McGuinness will by now have fully restored their appetite for football, and that what happened last year, and the drainage felt after their success of 2012, was inevitable. “In Donegal, when you win an All-Ireland it’s big stuff. So there were great celebrations, and with the way Jim had worked it, in the two previous years, they were tired, and that was reflected in the way they played the Ulster final and Mayo subsequently.
“But we’ve bounced back this year, back up to Division One, and even though we’ve lost two players off the All-Ireland winning side (Mark McHugh and Ryan Bradley), Ryan McHugh is in there, making a great contribution, and Odhran MacNiallais is a great addition as well. So they’ve brought a freshness to the team but, by and large, we haven’t really struck our real form as yet.
“Colm McFadden’s form would be a worrying factor for us. And we need Michael Murphy out there in the middle of the field.”