Donegal took defeat by Orangemen as the blueprint for future
Published 09/08/2014 | 11:00
In the spring of 2011, Kevin Cassidy sat in the sun room of his house in the townland of Coteen looking across to Gaoth Dobhair bay and recalled his 'retirement' the previous summer.
Donegal had been ejected from the Championship by Armagh in Crossmaglen, like an over-exuberant nightclub bouncer encountering underage drinkers. Cassidy was Donegal captain but he knew it was the end of the road. Armagh. It had to be Armagh.
"After the game I told the players that was it. Over. I thanked them for all the years we had been together, and their friendship. I said there was some serious talent in that dressing room and hoped that maybe I would be standing watching the lads win something," Cassidy recounted.
But by that point, he was already tempted into one last fling at it by the new manager; one Jim McGuinness. All that Armagh had in those Ulster final defeats of '02, '04 and '06, not to mention the All-Ireland semi-final of 2003, in terms of their strategy, organisation, fitness and dedication, was now on tap for Donegal and it was exciting for Cassidy.
"Down through the years and at meetings with the team, I would have been one of the boys giving out, because our standards weren't up to the level of the Tyrones and Armaghs. When I heard stories of what they had and what they were doing, I would always have been the one standing up and going, 'Lads, this isn't good enough!'"
Armagh's trajectory intersected with Donegal's in the 1999 Ulster Championship. They beat them in a replay by five points and soon rattled up three Ulster titles and an All-Ireland in four years. Sound familiar? It matches exactly Donegal's record of the last four years as things stand.
"We always felt as if we had their number," says Oisín McConville, one man who inflicted plenty of hurt on Donegal.
"Defensively, we were well set-up to play against them. Adrian Sweeney came along and used to cause us a bit of bother because he had so much physical strength.
"Generally when we played against Donegal they didn't have that physical strength. They were very reliant on Brendan Devenney and Enda McNulty would look after him most of the time and generally our defensive system would frustrate them."
Then, there was the mental battle.
"It didn't go unnoticed, to be honest, that we didn't know but we were of the opinion that they were a team that partied," continues McConville.
"In 2003 after they drew with Galway in Croke Park and beat them in Castlebar in the replay, the information that filtered back to us was that after that quarter-final they had stayed down in Dublin and partied for a couple of days.
"Now, that might not have been true, but it was good for our psyche, that was what we were coming up against. They had that name at the time."
He adds: "I think that was a big help for us as we were jumping in the sea on a Monday night, training on a Tuesday night.
"We felt that our preparation and everything else was going well at the time, a lot better than what theirs was. Whether that was true or not, that was the belief we had in the camp. We weren't going to let a boy who wasn't taking the game as seriously as us, beat us."
Devenney – one of the Donegal men who Armagh laid traps for – looks back on his career with some regret and envy of Armagh.
"I would swap years of football for one season of playing in my Donegal team that was coached and ready – like this Donegal team – against that Armagh team," the St Eunan's man reflects.
"Imagine if we had the same preparation, the same commitment. I am not saying after all that, that we would win. But at least it would be a level playing field."
His former team-mate McGuinness stood on those pitches and watched from the stands as, routinely, Armagh broke their hearts.
It gave way to an obsession that has turned Donegal under McGuinness from the role of the neutrals' second-favourite team, to that of relentless trophy-gobblers.
Devenney believes McGuinness was always studying Joe Kernan's team.
"He was interested in Armagh, what was so strong about them, why they were so hard to beat? He looked at that, he looked at Tyrone, how to make a swarm defence.
"There is no doubt that Jim learned so much of his stuff from the pain of defeat to Armagh. He wanted Donegal to be like that. Nobody wants to play against Donegal now and that's how we felt going into games against Armagh.
"We went in hoping we would win and wanting to win, but we were up against a very rigid machine, very like what Donegal have now. So you would have to say that Armagh in many ways caused the Donegal success. It's just a pity for me that it came late!"
Today in Croke Park, Armagh are back as a respectable force after a couple of years spent bobbing on the waves.
Once again, they have structure at the back and firepower up front. They are heading on the right road, but this stop may have come too early for them.
"I think Armagh now will be saying they can beat this Donegal side," says Devenney. "But if they lose to them, Kieran McGeeney will say to them; 'that's what we need to become.' They will have a plan to get there."
Now, it is other Ulster counties, desperately hunting for information on what Donegal are at. They are watertight, united and admired far more than they are loved.