There is nothing like the arrival of a ‘new’ team in the concluding stages of the All Ireland Football Championship to give the competition added vibrancy, pageantry and colour.
Changed times: Veteran Neil Gallagher is |revelling in Donegal’s rise |to the top|having endured many bad days with the county
I have been travelling to matches in Croke Park for decades as a player, manager and supporter and rarely have I experienced such an atmosphere as that which pertained there on Sunday last.
It seemed as if just about everyone from Donegal had descended on Headquarters to will their team into the All Ireland final.
They brought a whole new dimension to the occasion – the noise levels were deafening, the fervour intense and the atmosphere simply intoxicating.
When Armagh and Tyrone were crowned All Ireland champions in 2002 and 2003, respectively, their fans mounted a successful takeover bid for Headquarters.
Donegal did much the same last Sunday and the GAA top brass must surely be secretly pleased that Ulster sides continue to make their presence felt in the last four.
This means the turnstiles will click merrily and the Association’s coffers will be substantially boosted.
I am led to believe that many Donegal folk who had never been to Croke Park before were there at the weekend and you can take it for granted their prime goal in life now will be to obtain tickets for the final.
Donegal certainly deserve the unequivocal support they are receiving from all quarters now.
They may have been pilloried last year – and with justification, too – for their style of play but this time round manager Jim McGuinness and his assistant Rory Gallagher have tweaked their strategy to such an extent that players in all positions are figuring on the scoring list. The team’s never-say-die spirit, ability to adhere to their strategy, irrespective of the course a particular match might be taking, and rigid discipline have been winning them admirers from far beyond their county boundary.
I firmly believe Donegal will play even better in the final than they did last Sunday and that’s surely saying something.
When a distinguished commentator such as Liam Hayes suggests that Donegal’s was the most complete performance offered at Headquarters in the last 30 years, you realise you were privileged to have been present at a very special match.
There are no prima donnas in this Donegal side, either. Some players such as Neil Gallagher, Paul Durcan, Karl Lacey, Colm McFadden, Rory Kavanagh and Frank McGlynn have been around for a long time but their enthusiasm and zest are simply astonishing.
Indeed, it’s perhaps because they have suffered so much heartbreak in the county colours that these players are actually very much to the fore in striving to bring Donegal to the All Ireland throne.
They have become too familiar with the losers’ dressing room at Croke Park and boss McGuinness certainly has no intention of allowing them to return there.
And while these old hands are revelling in their new-found fortune, the young guns in the side are suddenly discovering just what it is like to be cast in the role of local heroes.
Patrick McBrearty, Paddy McGrath, Ryan Bradley, Mark McHugh and Leo McLoone may
have been relative unknowns not so long ago but today they are as well-known as the Colm Coopers, Stephen O’Neills, Benny Coulters and Bernard Brogans of this world.
McGuinness has managed to get a side containing a group of players of diverse ages and backgrounds into one of the most forceful, skilful and ambitious sides that it has been my pleasure to watch.
Donegal football has been pockmarked by setbacks over the past decade with the squad having gained a reputation for ‘celebrating’ defeats to extreme and causing a certain amount of embarrassment with their county.
Successive managers were forced to try and deal with this problem but invariably encountered difficulty in coping with the psyche which had enveloped the team.
There is not the slightest chance now that even a minor incursion into indiscipline will be tolerated – if you don’t believe this, consider what happened to Kevin Cassidy.
McGuinness rules with an iron hand and he is right. It’s his way or no way and that’s the only method by which a manager can exercise control and earn respect for what he is trying to do.
The levels of organisation, commitment and loyalty within this Donegal squad are quite unique in my view – rarely have I encountered a county team that is so focussed and single-minded with every player having clearly bought into the McGuinness philosophy.
This may or may not prove sufficient to bring them all the way to the Sam Maguire Cup but it has certainly helped to focus minds very strongly, particularly those of managers and coaches at all levels within the game.
Donegal’s progress is not merely the emergence of a previously beleaguered side – it is the thrust of a revolution that is taking gaelic football by storm.