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It's the last chance saloon for men from north west frontier

Donegal v Longford, All-Ireland Qualifiers 2a: Ballybofey, Today, 5.00pm

By Declan Bogue

Unfortunately, the identity has to be protected for commercial reasons.

But a working weekend 10 years ago with his employers in Dublin just wasn't doing anything for one particular Derry fanatic.

Not with his team in action at home in the qualifiers to Mayo - All-Ireland finalists from the previous year - up against the elegant talents of Kevin McCloy, Paddy Bradley, Enda Muldoon and company.

He walked out of the building sort of intending to grab a coffee but kept going until he reached his car. He gunned the engine, pointed the nose in the direction of Celtic Park and was rewarded by a romping performance from his side, the highlight of which was a delicate lob from Muldoon over the head of Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke, providing a coda to a famous win.

"I don't know if I meant it," laughs Muldoon now. "But it went in over his head. It looked the part anyway. That's all that matters!"

After the first 10 years of the qualifiers, a table was compiled by this journalist on which county had the - to borrow an Americanism - 'winningest' record in the All-Ireland qualifiers since the introduction of the backdoor system.

Derry had the greatest win percentage. This said something for their inability to progress in Ulster, but also their ability to recalibrate and take down other strong counties while piecing back together their self-esteem.

"A lot of people want it back to straight knock out, but I enjoyed it," says Muldoon, who will turn 40 later this summer but is still producing exemplary and free-spirited football for Ballinderry.

"There was a wee bit more freedom to play, and when you did get on a bit of a run, a game every week was hard to beat," he explains.

"The first couple of rounds were tough, getting boys back into the swing of it. But once it got up and running it was brilliant."

In Muldoon's first year with the county they reached the Ulster final and pick-pocketed an Ulster title with a late Joe Brolly goal against Donegal. But he insists they should have had an All-Ireland a few years later, courtesy of the backdoor system, after they were beaten by Tyrone in the 2001 edition of the Ulster Championship.

"I think we threw away an All-Ireland to be honest. If we had got over Galway that year we would have beaten Meath in the final. We were sitting with five points up on Galway with 15 minutes to go and we didn't do it.

"That's the one I look back on. Anthony Tohill, Henry Downey was still knocking about, Gary Coleman, boys like that were still there."

This year, nobody is talking Derry up as potential All-Ireland champions after a Tyrone defeat.

Neither is anyone considering Donegal in that bracket after a mauling from their Red Hand neighbours.

A win this weekend over Longford could provide a bit of balm after the burning.

John Haran knows what it's like. Another man creeping into his 40s in the short term, he continues to be a central figure in senior football for St Eunan's. In 2003, Donegal were subjected to a waterboarding by Fermanagh in the Ulster quarter-final.

It was Brian McEniff's first year back, and playing games on the hoof suited their recovery. They eventually made the All-Ireland semi-finals, something that Rory Gallagher's present squad would aspire towards.

Haran feels too much was being expected of a raw group.

"(The Donegal support) were getting carried away with the league performance against Tyrone in Ballybofey. At the end of the day, the league is the league but it's still all about the Championship," he says.

He continues: "They had won an Under-21 Championship and those players were going well. The victory over Antrim, people were getting more carried away and we might have thought…

"We were getting caught up in that hype and not looking further into it, to see that six players who hadn't played in last year's Ulster final were going in to play a hardened Tyrone team. And we were expecting that they would be good enough to pull us through.

"But it wasn't all down to the young players. I think it was a bad day at the office and once things get away from you, they get away."

If they can put it behind them then Donegal can still squeeze plenty out of the summer yet. The more games for this side the better as they hothouse themselves in Championship football.

"It really is a rebuilding job for Rory Gallagher," insists Haran.

"There is nothing like plenty of games in the summer in the backdoor for the young boys to bed in and get a feel for it, hopefully push on and get to an All-Ireland quarter-final. And then you are where you want to be at the start of the year, at an All-Ireland quarter-final in Croke Park."

A quarter-final is a lofty aim.

Derry cannot afford to look beyond Mayo.

"It's a good draw for Derry, I think," says Muldoon.

"You can go out in the qualifiers and get a handy draw and make your way to a quarter-final or a semi-final, but have you really been tested? At least Derry are going in now and they know what is in front of them.

"If you come away with a win, it's an absolutely magnificent result, some boost for them going into the next round. If it's a defeat, well everybody's expecting it anyway."

With Damian Barton having been appointed for two seasons in September 2015, there is a strong chance that Derry will be considering the possibility of a new management team come tonight.

Last year, while Barton served a lengthy touchline suspension, Muldoon acted as the Derry 'runner', passing on Brian McGuckin's instructions to players on the pitch.

His relationship with Barton goes back almost 20 years, when the Newbridge man became Ballinderry manager in 1998.

"I feel sorry for him, I definitely do," says Muldoon of the mountain of problems and obstacles Barton has faced since taking a difficult job.

"I do feel sorry for him. I know he is passionate, I know he has put a lot into it, and just the way things have turned out I do feel for him."

In Donegal there will be patience. Rory Gallagher is in the first year of a four-year term.

For Barton, the silent threat of the guillotine. It's a brutal business.

Belfast Telegraph


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