Donegal branch out in bid to defend All-Ireland title
When Donegal's Kevin Cassidy finally landed the telling punch that floored Kildare in an extra-time epic, it made for a stirring narrative.
It was the finish to a sporting contest normally only imagined inside the heads of Hollywood scriptwriters. Yet this was real, and ever since, the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final has been held up as the night Donegal became men.
Although he uses the word in connection with events of the day, Donegal's assistant manager Rory Gallagher feels there is too much drama attached to that assertion.
The holders of the Sam Maguire are set to meet the Lilywhites for the first time since that encounter on Saturday night when they open the National League in Croke Park.
Speaking at yesterday’s launch in Belfast, Gallagher grew wistful for the last game.
He recounted: “That day started very dramatically with Michael Murphy failing a late fitness test. It was a phenomenal win and it did help enhance our team spirit, but I don't believe it was that dramatic.
“Our character and our team spirit and what we are about, is built on our training nights and yes, through games like that.
“It was impossible to forget. I don't think any of us were involved in a sporting tussle quite like it and I think it was everything that is great about the GAA.
“It mightn't have been a classic in regards to skills, but for intensity, for will to win, for competitiveness, for honesty, it was exceptional and on top of that, it had an unbelievably dramatic finish.
“Regarding it being life-changing for our team, I don't think so. It wouldn't have been the end of the world for Kildare although it would have been difficult to get over.
“It did give us a phenomenal sense of achievement and enjoyment. It was probably more enjoyable a victory than the All-Ireland final in the sense that we looked beaten on a couple of occasions.”
That night, Kildare died with their boots on, just as they had the year before in the All-Ireland semi-final against Down.
Manager Kieran McGeeney reminded us of how fine the margins are at the top end of Gaelic football when he recalled: “Apart from the first 10, 15 minutes I thought it was the best game of the year for a lot of different reasons. Not just excitement but some of the football and scores involved in it.
“It's funny how sport turns,” he added. “One point one way and everything goes for Donegal, one point the other way and it doesn't go for us but again, that's sport.”
Prior to that particular game, McGeeney's outfit had earned a reputation as being one of the fittest to ever line out. Donegal's exploits last year has them now bearing the aura of supreme fitness and conditioning.
McGeeney provided some balance to the debate.
“It's funny when you win by a point you're so much fitter, better, stronger than everyone else,” he said.
“I think with Armagh in 2005 we went 17 games unbeaten in league and championship, we got beat by a point by Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final and suddenly everything we were doing was wrong and everything Tyrone were doing was right, and that was after three great games with them. There is a perception out there that every manager and coach is obsessed with fitness,” he said.
“If you came to our training sessions, there might be 10, 15 minutes out of an hour and a half where they're working on any kind of fitness work.”
Given the tapering of the training embargo, Donegal were only permitted to return to training on December 29.
By then, they were in holiday mode with a team trip to Dubai.
Donegal took the decision to write off the McKenna Cup by playing a number of trialists and underage county players and Gallagher is fully prepared for a bumpy start to the league.
“This isn't crying wolf but we are going to be up against it in the first two games,” he said.
“Down and Kildare I'm sure were back and making the most of the time they were back training.
“They are going to be in better shape than us, there is no doubt about that.”
Given that Donegal lost their opening two league games last year, to Down and Laois, there won't be lamentations over a possible loss on Saturday night.
As All-Ireland champions, they have already one eye on the first hurdle in Ulster, according to Gallagher.
He said: “Our ultimate goal is Tyrone on the 26th of May. We need to be right for that.
“That is our focus but we do want to stay in Division One, we do want to pick up points starting with this Saturday — we want to win on Saturday.”