Donegal aim for All Ireland glory
While all the questions and answers on Sunday concerned what Donegal could achieve this season, they already had made history on a number of fronts.
Not only had they become the first Donegal team to defend the Ulster Championship trophy in their 2-18 to 0-13 defeat of Down, they became the first team to defend it while beginning both campaigns from the preliminary round.
In the present set-up, all nine Ulster counties competing necessitates a preliminary round. It may surprise some that Derry were patchy entrants of the fledging Ulster Championships, and Tyrone went a few years without competing in the 1920's.
Since the establishment of the preliminary round, it became known as a graveyard of hopes, with the winners often exerting themselves so much that they could not sustain the effort for four games to take the title.
Before Donegal managed it last season, you have to go back to Armagh in 2005 and before that all the way to Derry in 1958 as teams that managed to win a single Anglo-Celt starting from that point.
No team had defended it in a nine-team tournament, from the preliminary, before Donegal on Sunday.
Standing in the tunnel at Clones, their captain Michael Murphy drank in the achievement and said: “It's massive. Some people say it's never been done before from the preliminary round and I suppose that's something we are very, very proud to do.
“Each day we go out and represent Donegal to our best and Jim McGuinness always makes us aware of that. To not only get to an Ulster final, but to win it this past couple of years is something we are very proud of. It's important to enjoy it and savour it, but it's important that we go on to represent Donegal and Ulster as best we can in the All-Ireland series.”
Sunday being a provincial final, the level of scrutiny was much keener than in any other rounds of the Ulster Championship. In delivering their most impressive performance this season, the possibility of Donegal winning an All-Ireland is now an open discussion. Closer observers of the Ulster football scene have realised this since they utterly overwhelmed Derry in Ballybofey.
Now, Donegal await a team to emerge from next weekend's Round Four qualifiers to play in an All-Ireland quarter-final over the August Bank Holiday. Given how their fanbase has swollen in recent weeks, a big day out in Croke Park is a prospect Murphy relishes when he says: “It's where you want to be as a footballer, there on the big days like Clones and Croke Park. We are going down to Dublin and whichever team we are playing in the quarter-final, it is going to be a massive opposition.
“A lot of teams are much more established than we are. All we can do is our best — we will be representing the county of Donegal and we have to keep going at it.”
Their last Championship trip to Croke Park was that controversial semi-final against Dublin when they lined out with only Colm McFadden (below) in a forward position. The boos rang around the stadium that day in a protest against their negativity and Donegal spent months afterwards defending their highly unusual formation and tactics.
Having scored 2-18 in the Ulster final, the alterations to their gameplan have revealed new layers of their ability.
“Well, that's what people say,” commented Murphy.
“I suppose they make up their own opinions on it. Obviously, we shipped a wee bit of flak last year and at various times this year. But we try to develop more scores and put more scores on the scoreboard. We try to develop the scoring side of the game and the scoreboard (on Sunday) shows that.
“We have a set criteria that we try to play to each day and whatever the result at the end, that's it. We're just delighted to have got over the line. We will enjoy tonight but the quarter-final comes very quickly, in a fortnight's time, but Jim and Rory will get us focused again.”
On Saturday night, some big beasts made it through the backdoor to take their place in Round Four. Kildare survived a scare against Limerick and Kerry slayed some personal demons with a rousing victory over Tyrone. It's all getting familiar-looking to Murphy.
“We are just looking forward to winning and winning as best we can.
“That's what we seen between Tyrone and Kerry; two phenomenal teams going at it hammer and tongs, that's the kind of established teams you are going to be looking forward to come the quarter-finals,” he added.
The real stuff starts now.