Boss Jim McGuinness says his time in Kerry forged Donegal football blueprint
It wasn't until a few weeks after Pat Spillane had an exasperated evening on The Sunday Game while analysing the Donegal-Antrim game in 2011 that we knew just how serious this Donegal project was.
They had just accounted for Cavan in the first-round proper and in the post-match interview, Jim McGuinness had a cut back at the pundits, telling the nation that they might think they could laugh at Donegal, "but that's not what we're about."
In the imagination of many, McGuinness was up to that point the carefree embodiment of Donegal teams he had played on. Capable to producing enormous days for the county, but never appearing to have a slavish devotion to the sport in the ways that other, more successful counties had. Such as Kerry for example.
McGuinness spent time studying there in IT Tralee and picked up a few tricks. He sucked it up and stored it away for later in life.
"You always hear about the lovely Kerry footballer and the natural footballer and that," explained McGuinness at the Donegal Press event a fortnight out from a final when they face The Kingdom in an All-Ireland final.
"But in my experience of Kerry they were so professional and dedicated that I don't know if 'natural' is the right word for them.
"They were so dedicated to making themselves better that they look natural, if that makes sense. It was a wake-up call in many respects," said the 41-year-old.
His college days were gruelling. He captained an IT Tralee team to their third consecutive Sigerson in 1999. Down there, Dubliner Val Andrews had put together a team of all talents, practically modelling themselves on an American college football programme.
"We trained four days on and three days off and we trained twice a day – seven in the morning and evening," McGuinness reminisces.
"Gym and pitch sessions in Kerins O'Rahillys. Seamus Moynihan for example was living in Glenflesk and Jack Ferriter was in Dingle; they were travelling. They were leaving to be in Tralee for seven so were on the road before six. And Seamus didn't have to prove anything at that stage!"
Years later, Andrews would admit that not all the players were strictly there for academia but it was a glittering outfit.
With Pat Flanagan as trainer – who would go on to achieve success in that role with Kerry – they had a phenomenal team that included the likes of Paraic Joyce, Michael Donnellan, Colm Parkinson and Mike Frank Russell.
Yet during all that time, McGuinness was still wedded to his own Naomh Conaill, which was a round trip of well over 500 miles. As an employee of Celtic, he hasn't missed a Donegal training session.
If anything, his commitment to Donegal has become even stronger in that time, as evidenced by the amount of time that the team have spent away this year in camp and the hours he has put in away from the group in terms of fundraising.
His grounding in making huge commitments came from his time in Kerry.
"I don't think I missed a league game for my club, definitely, because we were trying to ground ourselves at that stage so I felt that was important," he explains.
"People talk about those sacrifices but it is not a big deal. You are driving up the road because you are looking forward to the game and you want to play in the game. But it is great to be down there and it is even better when you are successful because you have bonded.
"And the Kerry people were fantastic – really good people, really good to me on a personal level. So on a personal level; it is a lovely final for myself. And I know it is a lovely final for the boys as well."
We have heard a little bit about how he was wavering at the end of last year as to whether or not to stay for a fourth year in charge, but not much from the man himself.
As he explains: "A half-baked attitude wasn't going to win anything this year. Everybody had to be either fully in or not fully in.
"There is no point conning people and saying, 'we'll start training in a couple of weeks and everything will be ok and we'll pick up pieces and build momentum'.
"It isn't about that. It's about: 'Do you want to be remembered and how do you want to be remembered?', or, 'do you want to be remembered for being beaten by 16 points in a quarter-final?'
"That was the question that had to be answered. I wanted to gauge the room. If I felt that it wasn't genuinely in the room then I probably wouldn't have gone on."
How Donegal are glad he didn't.