In April 2007, Brian McIver brought his Donegal team to Croke Park to play in that year's National League showdown. Donegal had spent most of the decade on the elevator between Division One and Division Two so their appearance in a first ever league final caused something of a mild surprise.
In truth, not many people outside of Donegal and Mayo, the opposition that day, much cared about the league final. National thoughts had turned to the championship. Donegal supporters travelled in trepidation as much as hope: they had watched their team lose 13 finals on the trot in all competitions prior to that afternoon.
The game itself was not particularly memorable but Donegal prevailed through a late scoring burst to win 0-13 to 0-10. What did register was the unabashed delight of the Donegal players. “Just an unbelievable feeling,” Eamon McGee said as he spoke on the pitch afterwards. “I think we showed in the first few minutes how badly we wanted it. It is a massive relief, if nothing else, after all the finals we played here and didn’t win.”
Brian Roper, the feisty, ball-winning half-forward had been part of Donegal teams that had lost the 2002, 2004 and 2006 Ulster finals. Just the previous year, he had played in the Division Two final against Louth, an occasion that provoked a strange spike in interest from both sets of supporters ravenous for something to celebrate. Donegal lost that one after a replay. Here they were 12 months later winning the tier one version.
"Everyone was saying we didn't have the bottle for winning finals" Roper said that afternoon. "Today we showed bottle. My heart goes out to the likes of Shane Carr and Damien Diver who have just retired but deep down we were doing it for them as well."
Given the transformation of Donegal football over the past five years, that solitary league win has been reduced to a footnote. But it was only the county’s second senior national title, a spring comrade for the lone All-Ireland won in 1992. And it came after a particularly turbulent period, when Brian McEniff, always an unofficial custodian of the game in the county, made the dramatic decision to swap chairmanship for a return to management in 2003 when it seemed that nobody else wanted the job.
Last great hurrah
The high point of that regime was Donegal’s canter through the qualifiers all the way to an All-Ireland semi-final meeting with All-Ireland champions in Armagh. It was McEniff’s last great hurrah as Donegal manager and the appointment of McIver in 2006 came at what was a fragile period for Donegal football.
It was the Derry man's first intercounty role but he came with glittering club credentials and the reputation for being a benign disciplinarian. He duly brought Donegal to the Ulster final in his first championship campaign and followed up with that league triumph.
Brendan Devenney was absent for McIver's first season: ostensibly he had elected to play soccer instead for the year but he can acknowledge now that he was simply unable to face losing any more big games. "To be honest, the disappointment was killing me. Coming up against Armagh and not having the approach needed to take them. Football was so much part of our life. I wanted to be like them. Not to play like them but to prepare like them and we kept sinking on Armagh rocks. It got to me."
He was back the following season and played in the league final, ignoring the effects of a torn stomach muscle he suffered in the last minute of a league game against Kildare. He didn’t want to miss out and the day felt like Donegal were beginning to go places. “Aye, to have a bit of silverware and see it through did create a wee bit of fire. It mattered to us, yeah.”
But as a launch pad, it didn't work. Kevin Cassidy declared the league win as the beginning of a "new era" for Donegal and that seemed fair enough after they recorded a dramatic and long-awaited victory against Armagh, a team that had come to haunt them, in the Ulster championship in Ballybofey.
Victors and losers were equally stunned and Donegal prepared to play Tyrone in the next round not fully convinced that they deserved to be there. Mickey Harte’s men wasted little time in assuring them they didn’t, handing them a withering 2-15 to 1-07 beating. Donegal’s season ended with a loss to Monaghan in late July in Healy Park.
Lay down a marker
“We played in Healy Park too in the McKenna Cup against Armagh early that season. It was a snowy day,” Devenney remembers. “And we nearly took the hinges off the door going out. We had to lay down a marker and we did. We won the game. But I remember us going out to play Monaghan that day and we went left the dressing room without raising a whimper. We had played five championship games in a row, between qualifying games and then two rounds of the club championship at home, which was a joke.”
By the end of the year, Donegal had their league medals to show but had made no significant progression in the championship. Shortly before Donegal hosted McIver’s native Derry in the first round of the 2008 championship, Eamon McGee blackly summed up the 2007 season by saying the squad was “in need of a sports psychologist as much as a football trainer”.
“We lost whatever respect we gained during the league,” he continued. “It was nobody’s fault. We gave a lot in that league and we couldn’t keep it going. And maybe a lot of us were going around with our heads up our asses. Myself included.”
It was an honest acknowledgement of another bitterly disappointing season but it made no difference. Derry, the new league champions, came in to Ballybofey and beat Donegal by 1-4 to 1-12. Monaghan later put both teams to the sword in the qualifying rounds. That September, Brian McIver’s time with Donegal ended in shameful circumstances: he attended a county board meeting with his annual report and found himself ousted without ceremony.
His tenure defied easy summation: an encouraging first championship, that league title and then two bitterly disappointing Ulster campaigns. Perhaps McIver’s true legacy lay in the expectations he set for Donegal and the standards he demanded. Kevin Cassidy missed the 2006 campaign because of disciplinary reasons but was outspoken in his support for McIver when there was a debate about whether his services would be retained.
Adrian Sweeney, who with Devenney formed one of the most potent front lines in the game, was periodically benched during the McIver regime and responded with some huge performances as substitute. If McIver was strict, he was unwavering in his support of the players. He gave Michael Murphy his debut at age 17. He gave Rory Kavanagh, Neil McGee, Anthony Thompson and Frank McGlynn championship starts.
All of the Donegal players from McIver’s time speak warmly of him as a coach and as a man. Eamon McGee this week declared he owes his football career to McIver, admitting the Derry man could have banished him from the squad several times over. Murphy has said McIver was responsible for bringing a level of professionalism to Donegal. “He made a clean sweep, definitely,” Devenney says. “He was dedicated and organised: a real school teacher. Brian was meticulous in his preparation and Donegal had a decent bunch of players but we just didn’t kick on in the championship. Maybe Brian would look back now with the experience he has gained and would say that we didn’t hit the championship at the pace we could have done.”
But they had enjoyed and respected the taste of professionalism offered by McIver. Speculating on where Donegal fell short in the summer of 2008, McGee was under no illusions of what had to happen. “We need to be a bit more ruthless. Tyrone and Armagh and teams like that . . . there is a mean streak about them. We are just . . . kind of . . . footballers. We just like to go out and play.”
It would take another three years before Jim McGuinness took over and showed McGee and the Donegal players how to become just that. Donegal won their second All-Ireland title in the same month that Brian McIver was appointed as Derry manager. They had become all that the Derry man believed they could and more. When they shake hands with their former mentor this evening, the senior Donegal players will mean it when they say thanks.