Hills are alive as carnival of goodwill continues

 

The big question for Donegal after last Sunday’s win is what now. County chairman PJ McGowan knows more than most how easily the glory days slip into the past again, writes KEITH DUGGAN

WHEN THE Sam Maguire came into Donegal Town in 1992, PJ McGowan was wearing an orange bib and trying to hold back a crush of people. He got a glimpse of the silver and that was it.

The Ballybofey man has worn many Donegal GAA hats down the years, from player to All-Ireland winning Under-21 manager to various administrative positions. His three years as chairman culminated in last Sunday night’s procession, when he stood on the stage with the team and looked out upon the sea of people in happy disbelief.

“I do feel it actually surpassed 1992 in the sense there was this huge expectation and hype in the county in the last month. And media has been transformed since then. There must have been 25,000 people in Donegal Town. All roads in were completely thronged. It took 25 minutes from what was Flood’s Garage to the Diamond and that was only achieved with a group of stewards linking arms and kind of forcing a patch through for the bus. It was incredible,” McGowan says.

Like most Donegal GAA people, he has had trouble with keeping his emotions up to speed with actual events. McGowan was a member of the Ulster Council on the summer’s day in 2010 when Donegal were eviscerated by Armagh in a championship match in Crossmaglen.

He had a duty to perform: it was to present one of the Donegal players with a memento for his 100th appearance. The ceremony took place outside the dressingroom and there were only a handful of people around. Donegal football seemed locked in a state of quiet moderation and the bedlam days of 1992 were never more distant.

He couldn’t help think of the contrast when Eamon McGee played his 100th game in Croke Park last Sunday. If the surprising progression of the Under-21 team coached by Jim McGuinness to the All-Ireland final was an encouraging sign, there was still little sign of what lay ahead when McGowan took up the role of chairman.

But he has witnessed a spectacular reawakening of passion and interest in the game within Donegal. The feverish expectation which seemed to tip the mercury after the Cork semi-final has hardly dipped yet. As expected, the Donegal team took the Sam Maguire cup back into the county through Pettigo.

“I was six years old the last time it came to Pettigo so I don’t really remember what was going on,” says Seán Britton of the Pettigo club. “So yeah. Monday evening was one of the best moments of my life anyway. We formed a guard of honour on the bridge. And Michael and Jim walked the Cup over. So to be there, it was very emotional. There were boys tearing up. I was tearing up myself. And I heard that the PSNI gave an escort too, which was kind of interesting.”

For the players, events became kind of chaotic after that. Since McGuinness took over, they have become accustomed to precision and organisation and things happening on time. Now everyone, including the management, was thrown into a carnival of goodwill and a homecoming schedule which was utterly impossible to follow.

McGowan admits he felt for the players: they had basically been living out of whatever bag they had packed before the All-Ireland final. It was wonderful but it was gruelling. They visited every second town in the county and made it into their final port of call hours after they were expected. It was two in the morning when Jim McGuinness finally brought the Sam Maguire back into his hometown of Glenties, where the atmosphere was phenomenal.

“I missed Ardara but I believe that Patrick McGrath was fabulous . . . his mother was on the stage and the words he said were very emotional and heartfelt and they went down a treat. He’s an outstanding young lad anyway.

“But I have seen this squad now over the past few years and they are so respectful of the support and of what is done for them. No grumpiness. They are a great group of people, from a county board point of view. Magheragallon was tremendous in Gweedore. There were tremendous scenes.”

The tour continued until Thursday evening. Last night, the Donegal side were due to appear on the Late Late Show and this weekend, they are involved in club championship games – the game between current county champions Glenswilly and Gweedore is the pick of the bunch.

Since the final whistle blew in Croke Park, they haven’t had a second to themselves. The bigger question is what now. McGowan knows more than most of how easily the glory days slip into the past again. The crucial thing for Donegal is to use the interest to harness a consistent under-age programme. “We are going to have to look at that. I know that after 1992 the game evolved greatly in Inishowen. There were some areas we didn’t make hay when the sun shone. And I think now that we have to promote the game,” he says.

“The numbers of young people following this team are huge anyway. The number of young people trying to exchange Hogan and Cusack tickets for the Hill last Sunday was phenomenal – the Hill seemed to be the place to be. And at all the homecomings, the numbers of young people had to be seen to be believed. And we have to use that positively.”

It starts this morning at the St Eunan’s club grounds in Letterkenny, when the Sam Maguire will be in attendance for an attempt to break a world record for the biggest ever attendance at a GAA training session.

The Hills are alive.

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