The decision of Jim McGuinness to step down as Donegal football manager brings to an end a remarkable four years, not just in the county's history but in the history and evolution of football.
McGuinness’s achievements in taking a county with a 20-year history of underachieving to a second All-Ireland title are vividly illustrated by the statistic that tells us 12 of the players – nine starting – who took part in the dismal 10-point defeat by Armagh in the 2010 first round qualifiers were playing in the All-Ireland final success of two years later.
What was significant about Donegal’s success was that they were the longest-odds champions in decades, having started the season at odds of 20 to 1, and that they did it with a team of players, without under-age All-Irelands and most of whom had made no real impact on the championship until McGuinness became manager.
The success was also a striking triumph of the collective – ensemble acting as opposed to a system built around stars. This was clear at the start of 2012 when the controversy over Kevin Cassidy erupted – he had been one of the players to collaborate in the writing of Declan Bogue's book This Is Our Year.
At the time there was an obvious danger that this was a hostage to fortune. Cutting loose a current All Star and leadership figure in such a public fashion was fine in the depths of winter but the price of that decision later in the year might be costly.
McGuinness’s vindication emphasised how important loyalty to the communal was in the world he was building.
That he came so close to reprising the feat this year was almost as notable an achievement as the 2012 victory.
There has been so much public debate – and consternation – about the system operated by Donegal, it can be forgotten that the mechanics of organising an All-Ireland victory, and particularly with limited panel numbers, are challenging in the extreme.
It required a restricted number of players to subscribe to a regime which developed the fitness necessary to execute for longer the skills and co-ordination needed for the type of game McGuinness wanted to play and which had been deployed to bring Donegal to the 2010 All-Ireland under-21 final
That game plan - based on a massed, deep-lying defence and fast-breaking counter attacks with clusters of support players - could be hard to watch if the opposition decided to do the same, as was seen in last month’s All-Ireland final, McGuiness’s last match in charge, and also, symmetrically, in the manager’s very first championship match, against Antrim in Ballybofey in May 2011.
The key point, however, about that match, much reviled as it was at the time was that Donegal were looking to halt a run of three successive years’ losing their first round of the championship at home, as McGuinness was quick to point out at the time.
“A lot of players had lost three years in a row and they have been in the exact same dressing room at the exact same venue three years in a row having lost, there was added pressure for them.”
That year was marked by the county's first Ulster title since the All-Ireland year of 1992 – one of three in four years that McGuinness would deliver as well as the 2011 Division Two league title – but also one of the most controversial championship matches in modern times, the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
With both sides playing cautiously – Dublin maintaining their full defence despite Donegal being so withdrawn that Colm McFadden was frequently the sole attacker – the score ended up as an 0-8 to 0-6 win for Dublin.
In the crowd watching was Kerry manager Jack O’Connor, in Croke Park to check his team’s final opposition. Earlier this summer, he spoke to this newspaper about the experience.
“It was the most surreal game that I was ever at. I think after about 15 or 20 minutes there was sustained booing coming from the crowd. I’d never seen that previously.
“Donegal did something that day that had never been seen in Croke Park before. They basically parked the bus on Dublin and said, ‘let’s see you break this down’.
“To be fair – and I know Jim McGuinness got massive criticism afterwards – one thing stood out for me. You need ferocious courage to go with a game plan like that and stick to it and get the players to stick to it. That takes some convincing.”
McGuinness would later explain that the controversial defeat by Dublin wasn’t so much the lack of a Plan B as an imperfectly executed Plan A, a failure to execute the attacking part of the team’s approach, as he outlined before the start of the 2012 league.
"The only regret I have is that about three weeks out from the game what we were getting through the middle was very exciting. We were playing Michael Murphy out the field and he was strong, he was powerful, Christy Toye was coming back to himself and we had Ryan Bradley – we had a lot of strong, big men with power and pace and we were practising the gameplan, the ability to turn the ball, work it, hand it to them and then drive through and ask the question.
“The only disappointing thing about it was that we didn’t get enough of that over the course of the 70 minutes. If we continued to do that and done the job defensively and continued to be explosive and dynamic then we could have gone on to win that game easily.”
That was more or less how the team went about its business in 2012 and so effectively that there wasn’t any match in which the result was really threatened, apart maybe from the dying moments against Tyrone and Kerry but even in those matches the worst that might have happened was a draw.
Ironically, the team's least convincing display came in the final but they still had four points to spare over Mayo.
The only shadow that fell that year was the announcement that McGuinness had been head hunted by Glasgow Celtic as a performance consultant working with, in his own words at the time, "the younger first-team players, the development squad players and some of the under-20 players, who are trying to make the breakthrough into the first team".
Brian McEniff, who managed the only previous Donegal team to have won an All-Ireland and who had McGuinness on that panel as a young player, articulated the general reaction in the county:
“We’re sorry we have to share him and realistically we know that if he does well we’ll probably lose him but he’ll be there for 2013. It’s a challenge and he has a young family and has just built a new house but if anyone can do it, Jim can.
“He’s given the county a great lift in recessionary times. We’re very proud of him.”
In the event, 2013 turned out to be year to forget. Players were injured and unable to recover fully for the year. As early as April, Donegal were relegated from Division One of the league and although the championship started well with a win over Tyrone in Ballybofey, the wheels came off in July with defeat by Monaghan in the Ulster final and then a crushing reverse in August’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo.
Jaded and unable to work the system at full tilt, Donegal fell apart and were ransacked by the team they’d beaten in the previous year’s All-Ireland final.
Talking about it earlier this year, Karl Lacey the 2012 Footballer of the Year recalled the match.
“Every man was trying their best and we just didn’t have it in the legs, didn’t have the endurance and didn’t have the speed or sharpness. You’re looking over at the sideline and asking Jim, ‘what the hell’s going on here?’ Jim didn’t have the answers and that’s just the way it was.”
The scale of the setback may have convinced McGuinness to try once more, as the consensus view in the county had been that one year of combining Celtic duties in Glasgow with managing Donegal would probably be all he could give.
Instead he decided to stay on and there was further controversy when he replaced three of his back-room team, including coach Rory Gallagher, currently being quoted as favourite to succeed his former manager, and also push for senior and intermediate county championships to be deferred until after the inter-county season had ended.
Interestingly, by the start of this year Donegal’s chances were rated as poorly as they had been before the All-Ireland success of two years ago. The Division Two league final ended in defeat by Monaghan and although the championship began with an emphatic defeat of Derry, they still weren’t universally favoured to win the Ulster final.
The jubilant scenes that greeted the win that day, giving McGuinness and his team a third provincial title in four years, in a way contributed to the sense that Ulster was the limit of any realistic ambitions.
Dublin had by this stage become the strongest force in football, succeeding Donegal as champions in 2013 and winning back-to-back league and Leinster titles.
Moreover, their style of prioritising attack and running up consequent big scores most likely meant McGuinness, and most other elite managers, had been thinking how best to take on the champions.
He and Dublin manager Jim Gavin had first crossed swords as managers in the 2010 All-Ireland under-21 final, a match won by Dublin.
A year later Pat Gilroy had been in charge for the controversial semi-final but it would have been natural for the Donegal manager to want to redress the balance.
The semi-final between the counties seven weeks ago was arguably the biggest coup of McGuinness’s management. Ten to one outsiders, Donegal absorbed a power-play opening by the champions and hit back towards the end of the first half before running out comfortable winners, as their opponents continued to play with a wide-open naïveté.
Afterwards in what could be interpreted as a riposte to all of the swooning over Dublin’s flamboyance, he spoke of the need to balance attack and defence.
It was McGuinness’s final flourish. In a claustrophobic All-Ireland final, hampered by the uncharacteristic concession of two goals, Donegal lost to Kerry in what was only the county’s third All-Ireland final.
He was agonisingly close to signing off with a second Sam Maguire, which would have been perfect. With his Celtic responsibilities growing, it was always on the cards that McGuinness, with a young family, would be realistically unable to maintain the two commitments into the future.
But he leaves with Donegal immeasurably enriched by his involvement and more than that, a clear blueprint for other struggling counties: tactical imagination, hard work and leadership can optimise whatever resources a county has. It’s an impressive legacy.