Michael Murphy didn't need another five-star display in Saturday night's league match against Dublin to maintain his reputation of 15 years but it further underlined his status in the game.
Since the 2012 All-Ireland team broke up, the Donegal captain – 31 next summer and into his 14th season– has been carrying a young, developing team and that much was clearly on view in Croke Park.
He won the Man of the Match award and although his team were just about denied any return from the contest, Murphy scored 0-5 out of the 1-14 total with two points from play, two frees earned by himself and a mark as well as providing assists for a further 1-3.
The assist for Jamie Brennan's first point was eerily similar to the move that opened up Dublin in the famous 2014 All-Ireland semi-final for Donegal's second goal. Murphy's expertly timed jump at centrefield enabled him to jab the ball in flight into the path of Ryan McHugh.
On this occasion, thanks to Evan Comerford's fine block, they had to make do with a point. His lightning dexterity opened up a runway of space for Hugh McFadden to race in and score a well-taken goal.
Then, in the 67th minute, just after Dublin had administered the hammer blow of turning Donegal ’keeper Shaun Patton’s fumble into the match-defining goal, Murphy popped up on the restart to claim a high-pressure mark from which one of his pointed frees resulted.
But in the end, they came up short and have now been pulled into the relegation zone. At least they now have two home fixtures against Ulster rivals, Monaghan and Tyrone over the next two weekends.
One of the main concerns for Donegal has been the tendency to surrender big leads, which cost them dearly against Connacht teams Mayo and Galway, who upset what looked like being two wins with late scores that left the Ulster champions with just a point.
“Aye, frustrating,” is Murphy’s reaction to the train of events. “We had a really positive two weeks there on the back of the Galway game but it was frustrating in the end for us. We came down the road full of hope and I thought for the first 20 minutes of the [Dublin] game we were showing what we were trying to do.
“You need to get over the line, getting over that line is the big part. It’s your extra 20, 30 per cent to try and do that and we’ve got to believe. I still believe we’re on the right track. I still believe we’re on the right journey.
“The team is maturing and we just need to keep pushing at it. I keep going back to it – keep developing the squad that we have there and keep getting bodies playing because I do feel that the game at the moment, it’s a 20-, 25-man game and we need to keep developing a squad that’s strong enough for that.”
Frustration has been something of a keynote for Murphy and Donegal in the past two years. Under Declan Bonner’s management, they have managed to put Ulster titles back-to-back but both years have been unable to get out of the All-Ireland quarter-final round-robin groups.
“Listen, you learn in every game. Funny, the league is brilliant – you’ve ups and downs, one week you take learnings and that’s the way we’ve applied ourselves in the last two weeks after the Galway game . . . and I thought we tried to do to that first 20 minutes of the game.
“We just weren’t able to sustain that and that’s what it’s going to take to compete at this level against the big sides against you, your Dublins, your Kerrys, your Tyrones and the teams that are going to be up there, the Galways and Mayos. That’s what we need to try and do as a group and as a squad.”
Further frustration came with an injury-time red card after his marker John Small and he got second yellows. Murphy was asked was this another example of being tarred with the same brush as an aggressive defender after Kerry's David Clifford suffered a similar fate against Tyrone.
“Ah I don’t know, I suppose part of it felt like that anyway. I was trying to get up the field and the two of us went down then and all of a sudden, probably because of the length of time we were in the shemozzle, there was always going to be two yellow cards then but it is what it is.”
He was similarly philosophical about the eight minutes' injury-time played at the end of Saturday night's match. Referee Maurice Deegan added seven minutes at the end and played eight even though the added-on period had seen two extra minutes of stoppages.
“Honestly I don’t know. At that stage I was coming off the field and I wasn’t really looking. We had that attack towards the end I remember it kind of just petered out towards that end but in terms of the time, I really don’t know.”
He is also aware that although performances have been encouraging, the team will need something more tangible in the vital weeks ahead.
“We need to get points on the board obviously but the big aim is to really be competitive and really try and build that squad. It was great to get Paddy [McBrearty] back and it’s just good to get this quality of games every single day because that’s where you learn what you have.”