Frank McGlynn and Donegal ready to prove they have a lot left to offer

Last year’s bad times only a bad memory as all eyes are now on Derry

Being boring is about the one accusation that cannot be levelled at the Donegal squad. From the habitual disciplinary problems of old to the perfect season in 2012 and last summer's extravagant collapse to Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter final – the defence that gave away nothing was suddenly coughing up everything – Donegal football people have lived through interesting times.

Frank McGlynn has been a constant presence through the best and worst of those and is probably the player who most reflected the radical change in direction and quality of the squad over the past three seasons.

Over the summers of 2011 and 2012, he made the metamorphosis from tidy, reliable and typical corner back from the Donegal interior into uncontainable and natural born counter-attack merchant with a dead eye for a score.

Shortlisted for player of the year in 2012, he finished that season with an All-Star and his stock rose so much he became a reference point when Donegal seemed to run out of steam on the day of the Ulster final.

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It is sometimes overlooked that as well as surrendering their All-Ireland title last summer, Donegal missed out on a rare chance to capture three provincial titles in a row after 19 years of winning none.

It wasn't until afterwards McGlynn permitted himself to reflect on the significance of that match.

Meet-and-greet
"It was probably in retrospect more so than leading up to the game," he says on a warm and torrentially wet afternoon in Ballybofey. It was First Communion day and the squad had just finished a meet-and-greet session for younger fans – McGlynn himself was racing off to a family Communion later.

“Yeah, we were going for three-in-a-row but we weren’t speaking about it or conscious that it was in our minds. You do know it is a long way back to get another chance to achieve something like that. But I don’t think that had any bearing on the game, to be honest. I just feel Monaghan were a fresher team and a bit fitter than us.”

From the first 10 minutes – and in particular after Stephen Gollogly’s declarative hit on Mark McHugh – it was clear Donegal were not where they wanted to be.

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, they got the full repertoire that day; Monaghan sat back and dared the Ulster champions to break them down and then attacked with verve and confidence.

They were full of energy and self-belief and running. They tackled with a ferocious need for the ball. Suddenly, the team who had dictated the terms of the Ulster championship for the previous two years looked a little lost.

“It was physical,” McGlynn agrees. “Monaghan brought a physicality to the game we probably hadn’t met before because we hadn’t played them in any league or challenge games.

“So it was physical. But those Ulster games tend to be like that. We were prepared for it. We had talked about it. But on the day, we didn’t cope with it.”

That defeat sent Donegal into a tailspin. A gruelling qualifier match against Laois followed and then the lottery of the quarter-final draw pitted them against Mayo, the county they had defeated in the 2012 All-Ireland final.

Most felt James Horan's men had shown the better form: nobody anticipated the startling gulf in form which materialised over the 70 minutes.

Eclipsed
Donegal were eclipsed all over the field and its collective defensive effort, always the jewel in the crown, disappeared. It was as if the magic left them.

As McGlynn remembers it, there was no panic at half-time: they accepted they had been flat but were convinced they could get back into the match. The third quarter had always defined them: they excelled in what Australian Rules aficionados term the “moving quarter”.

“It was in that 10-minute spell we had a chance to try and get back into the game. But then they got their third goal and there was a realisation then that Mayo were just going very well, that it was going to be very hard to claw our way back.

“Going into that game, we had no thoughts of being tired or problems with fitness or preparation.”

The game was a freak, contradictory in every aspect of what Donegal had stood for. At one stage, a 20-point-gap opened up and Mayo seemed at liberty to score as they pleased.

“That was hard to comprehend,” McGlynn admits. “We had been averaging about 11 points a game in scores conceded. So it was the goals mainly were the sore ones to take.

“We had quite a good record in that department and they are big scores to give up in a championship match. But I do think Mayo had an exceptional game that day. I felt they played their best football of the year in that quarter-final. So you could say we were unlucky to meet them but we weren’t good enough.

“We never went into a game thinking we were ill-prepared or not fit enough. Things didn’t work out for us on the day in Croke Park or Clones against Monaghan. But at no point did we feel we weren’t good enough to win an All-Ireland last year.

“And it does take a while to recover. But then we saw the Glenswilly boys go on a run in the club championship. You soon get over it. You have to. There is always another game coming.”

When Donegal met Monaghan in the Division Two league final in April in a reprise of that teak-tough Ulster showdown, they again came off second best.

Losing Rory Kavanagh to a straight red card was the low point of a miserable second half. The defeat brought a new evaluation of Donegal's narrowing potential. The departure of Mark McHugh along with three other players led to an inevitable rush of rumours and stories.

The theories are manifold: the lightning counter-attack system perfected under Jim McGuinness had run its course; the players were washed out from the Spartan training regime; other counties had wised up; the Donegal squad simply wasn’t deep enough.

McGlynn has heard the theories a thousand times. The repeated rationale from the Donegal management for last year’s failure has been that cumulative injuries and a hectic club/championship compromised Donegal’s All-Ireland defence from the beginning.

It stands to reason: if the precision and quality of the training regime was the foundation for All-Ireland success, then an inability to maintain that regime could but contribute to diminished performances.

“It can be on the day. Sometimes you think you are going better than you actually are and that is what happened to us last year. This year, there has been more of a focus. Last year, we really didn’t get back to training until February and I think that eight-week block of training from November through January can make a big difference come the summer. All the fitness work is behind us now and this is the most important time of the year.”

Still, most observers will tune in to Celtic Park tomorrow to see what Donegal have left to offer. There are several ways to interpret this match but on paper, it pits Derry, the beaten Division One finalists against Donegal, the beaten Division Two finalists. While McGlynn agrees summer success is generally dominated by Division One league teams, he notes: "It is not a hard and fast rule. It is there to be broken. Tyrone got to the Division One final last year while we were relegated, yet come the first round of the Ulster championship, the game had no reflection on our league standing.

"That is how we look at it. It is a clear slate for everyone."

Little fanfare
McGlynn arrived into the Donegal squad with little fanfare, taking his chance after Brian McIver called him in for a trial around Christmas in 2005.

He was, he felt, “there to make up the numbers” but became a mainstay in the team.

McGlynn teaches in a national school on the fringes of Glenveagh and he and wife Diane have two young children. He plays with Glenfin and had looked destined to endure an inter-county career of more downs than ups until the transformative seasons under McGuinness.

When McGlynn made his 100th appearance for Donegal in the McKenna Cup this year, film footage went around of the other players singing mock birthday greetings as he accepted his piece of crystal. It hardly presented the image of a squad haunted by the previous season or fed up of the game and one another. They gained promotion from Division Two in something of a canter and spent a training week in Portugal just before the league final.

“Any county manager realises that league is league,” he says of their approach to that league final. “They are two different times of the year. Whether you win or lose a league final, you draw a line under it. Throughout the league, you are building for the first round of the championship. We were back in November and had a good winter of training before Christmas, things reflected in the start of the league.”

It may have been more by accident than design but despite their profile and achievements over the past two seasons, Donegal will take the field in Celtic Park tomorrow as slight outsiders and a complete mystery. For Derry fans, that may be a little disquieting.

For McGlynn, perceptions of Donegal may have changed from the outside but he is approaching this season with the same conviction. He doesn’t sound as if he feels Donegal are yesterday’s news.

“It is all eyes on Derry. There are only two championships to win and the Ulster is every bit as big to us as the All-Ireland.

“Winning three games and going into an All-Ireland quarter-final with a medal is the way to go. You aim to win these competitions. That has always been my target.

“When you go in without an All-Ireland medal, that is the pressure to win that first one.When you have one, you are trying not to be a one-hit wonder. So it is about how much pressure you put on yourself.”