As the last county to beat Dublin in the championship, Donegal may still be entitled to feel closer than most to the now three-time All-Ireland champions. Only Ryan McHugh isn’t so sure.
McHugh scored 2-2 when Donegal performed a cross between a hijacking and a kidnapping on Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final: now, with a second change of management in the three years since, he admits Donegal are still trying to catch up, not match up.
“Dublin don’t look like slowing up anyway,” he says. “But that’s the challenge for everyone else – to try catch up. Dublin definitely are ahead of the pack at the moment, a good bit ahead. Mayo are the one team able to match them.
“But it’s looking harder all the time as they look to be getting stronger and stronger. You can’t blame Dublin, they’re setting the bar at that level. It’s about trying to be the best we can be. It  seems like a long time ago now. But Dublin are a phenomenal team, and in my opinion the best I’ve ever seen, the best team to play football.
“They’ve always had the population. It is getting bigger now, but they have always had the population. I think they have just done huge work with under-age and everything. They went 16 years without winning an All-Ireland so they just did huge work and they are not slowing up.
“It is looking harder. They seem to be getting stronger every year. That is just the way it is, you can’t blame Dublin, they are setting the bar at an extremely high level. And it is up to everyone else to get up to that.”
All-Ireland-winning manager Jim McGuinness stepped down after that 2014 final defeat to Kerry, to be succeeded by his deputy Rory Gallagher. Now Gallagher has stepped aside after three years, moving back to his native Fermanagh, while former Donegal manager Declan Bonner comes back for a second stint in charge.
McHugh admits he tried to persuade Gallagher to stay on. “You try your best to convince him, to get him back, but his mind was made up, and you have to look forward. Managers come and go.
“There was huge surprise. Rory Gallagher deserves huge credit for the time and commitment he gave to Donegal. Everyone who has worked with him has huge time for him, and what people think outside the group doesn’t matter. I’d like to thank him for the time and effort he gave, and I think Fermanagh have now got a phenomenal manager and coach.”
For now McHugh is putting all club thoughts before county, and for good reason: last Sunday week Kilcar ended a 24-year wait for a Donegal football title (the game itself is one to forget, the 0-7 to 0-4 winning scoreline over Naomh Conaill). That has set up Sunday’s Ulster showdown against Monaghan champions Scotstown.
The last Donegal club to win Ulster was an amalgamation of Ballyshannon and Bundoran, in 1975. “Donegal do have a poor record in Ulster. It was huge for the club to get over the line...Don’t get me wrong, it was a bad match, but we played each other in the semi-final last year and it finished 5-10 to 1-11.
“We can only do our best and try to put that right this weekend. Time will tell. We will know more on Sunday evening. The pressure is off as such. There was a lot of pressure in Kilcar the last number of years; people were saying that we should have been winning the county and we weren’t. But I don’t agree with that, I think you win the county on merit.
“Glenswilly were the best team last year and they won it, and Glenties were the year before that. Kilcar were this year. We’ll go up on Sunday and perform as best we can.”
McHugh also gives a sort of mixed blessing for the condensed football championship schedule starting next year. With Donegal drawn in the preliminary round of the Ulster championship, the Super 8 – and the guarantee of three games at the quarter-final stage – feels like a long way off.
“Only time will tell, it’s hard to know now. The club is great. I do think they need to give more time to it. It’s such a great tournament. The number of club finals on at the moment, you could go to a club game every night nearly, and the crowds that are going to watch matches are phenomenal.
“I was talking to John Small from Dublin earlier, and he told me that the Dublin final is all-ticket. That’s how big the club championships is getting, and I do think they need to be given more time.”