Joe Kernan: Donegal destined for top
It is often said in a sporting context that success comes in cycles. This is particularly true in a GAA context. During the 70’s and early 80’s the great Dublin and Kerry teams held sway before giving way to Meath who won the All-Ireland title in 1987 and ’88 with the best team ever to have represented the county.
It was Cork’s turn to reign when they collected the Sam Maguire Cup in 1989 and 1990 before Down made it five titles in all by taking delivery of the ‘big one’ in 1991 and ’94.
Meath again surfaced as kingpins (1996 and ’99) prior to Galway (1998 and 2001) showing their mettle as worthy All-Ireland champions before Kerry and Tyrone became the dominant forces from 2000 until the present day.
Similarly, on the provincial front certain teams have tended to rule the roost for spells and Ulster is a prime example.
Since 1999 Armagh have won the Anglo Celt Cup seven times while Tyrone have sat on the provincial throne on five occasions in that period.
But the balance of power has switched significantly. Now Donegal hold all the aces and will make history should they collect what would be back-to-back Ulster titles when they meet Down in this year’s decider on July 22.
It is debatable though if any team has suffered as much Championship heartbreak as the north-west side. Under successive managers they struggled to get their hands on the Ulster crown since 1992 when Brian McEniff (pictured, far right) worked the oracle.
But Jim McGuinness (pictured, right) has changed all that. A team that were dubbed ‘nearly men’ have become supermen, an outfit on a mission.
In his debut season as boss, McGuinness plotted the route to glory last year even if his team’s strategy did not offer any great aesthetic value. The fact that the title famine had ended was all that mattered — it was a classic example of the end justifying the means.
Not only will Donegal enter the Ulster final later this month as firm favourites but since last Saturday’s win over Tyrone they have not surprisingly found themselves thrust into the All-Ireland title frame.
And for a very good reason too. After all, what team would fancy pitting its tactical blueprint against Jim McGuinness’s complex yet hugely effective tactical plan?
And how many managers honestly feel they are capable of nullifying the potent threat that players such as Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden, Patrick McBreaty and Mark McHugh can pose?
If patience is a virtue, Donegal have had it in spades. Time and again they reached Ulster finals and semi-finals in the past twelve years only to suffer excruciating heartbreak.
McGuinness has single-handedly changed all that.
Donegal were the laughing stock of football on occasions with tales of their socialising – particularly after defeats — doing the rounds, thus heaping further embarrassment on the squad. They became proficient at celebrating defeats, indeed.
But those days are firmly in the past. It would be difficult indeed to find a more driven, focused, fixated side than Jim McGuinness’ outfit.
When they won the Ulster title last year, the manager made it clear that he did not want this to be regarded as a flash in the pan.
The chances are that back to back titles will now accrue and
this will pave the way for a concerted shot at the All-Ireland title. It’s worth remembering that Donegal are now an even wiser, fitter and even more ambitious outfit than they were last term when they came within a whisker of reaching the All-Ireland final.
Like everyone else in football, McGuinness is continuing to learn his trade except perhaps that he is absorbing lessons at a faster rate than most other folk.
When his side played Dublin in the All-Ireland final last year they enjoyed a three-point lead and should have been more than capable of pushing on to record what would have been a fairy-tale victory.
Instead they retreated into a defensive shell and lost a game that been there for the taking by the incongruous margin of 0-8 to 0-6. I don’t think that we will see the same safety-first mentality prevail to the same extent this time round.
Donegal have acquired a sharper edge and a greater variety to what was a previously latent attacking concept and this has already taken them to championship victories over Cavan, Derry and Tyrone.If they win the Ulster title, they will have done it the hard way. After all, Kerry won several All-Ireland titles by playing just five games!
With a number of players waiting in the wings to sample action, McGuinness clearly has the resources at his disposal to keep Donegal at the top.
I cannot see them being easily dislodged from their perch and if as expected they retain their Ulster crown, then this will provide further impetus for their drive for All-Ireland glory.
Success indeed comes in cycles and right now Donegal have their foot on the pedal.
It would be difficult to find a more driven, focused, fixated side than Jim McGuinness’ team