Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Messiah Takes Us To The Promised Land

We have him! Michael Murphy couldn’t have summed it up better.
After possibly the most treacherous route taken to win any All-Ireland, Jim McGuinness brought us the title we have craved for so long. The scenes were incredible and the tears and drink have flowed in equal measure since Sunday evening.

Many commentators have spoke of the journey the team have taken in such a short space of time and how they’ve come from nowhere to Champions in two years. Jim always believed though.

Ireland’s National Library on Kildare Street in Dublin wouldn’t immediately spring to mind as the location for some sort of premonition as to a potential All-Ireland but it was there in late 2009 that I realised what we were missing. Myself and some of my clubmates from Ranelagh Gaels GAA club in Dublin sat in hushed reverence listening to the great manager of the day, Mickey Harte, offering his views on the game and it was fascinating.
Listening to Harte, it was obvious that Donegal needed someone like him to turn our fortunes around; we needed someone with that obsession to win, the drive and the belief – we needed a Messiah.

Six months later I watched Donegal’s U21s beat Tipperary in Parnell Park to qualify for the All-Ireland Final. It was clear that the players had a belief not often associated with Donegal players; they were so in tune with the game plan they were executing, every man knew his job and they trusted each other and played for their manager.
When Michael’s penalty came crashing off that crossbar in Breffni Park in the dying seconds of the final, there was a sense of unfinished business. The Maestro and The Messiah had an All-Ireland to win.

I first saw a young Michael in Cusack Park in Mullingar in a qualifier fixture in 2007. I hadn’t seen his Championship debut the previous week, instead listening to Raidio na Gaeltachta’s Seamus Mac Geadaigh describe the action while trying to drown out the noise of Oxegen’s main stage behind me. On that day we struggled to an extra time win in Carrick On Shannon.

At the time every team was looking for a Kieran Donaghy type full forward after the Kerry man brought the Kingdom to an All-Ireland the previous year. Michael was only seventeen at the time but had the physical presence and the skill to suggest he could become a star.

On Sunday he scored as good a goal as has ever graced an All-Ireland final with a trademark fetch-pivot-bang finish. He has scored so many of those in his career - Cork in the league this year, Derry in last year’s league, for his club in last year’s county final – but it remains a stunning piece of action to witness.

It set the tone for a superb individual display from the captain and when Colm McFadden got the second goal soon after, it was hard to see us being beaten.
Mayo deserve huge credit for forcing their way back into the game when it looked as if things were heading the direction of their previous finals.

An eerie silence descended upon Croke Park for a while after McFadden’s goal, the stadium was packed but both sets of supporters seemed a bit shocked at the way things had unfolded early on. Mayo did get going again and showed they're a fine side, narrowing the deficit to three by half time.

Donegal always seemed to have an extra gear though and whenever they needed a settling score they got it, with the gap never less than three points.
Mayo needed a goal but barely got a sniff. The McGee brothers were outstanding, with Eamon playing an hour with a yellow card to his name but showing fantastic discipline and composure, particularly in the second half. With younger sibling Peter also in the squad there'll be three Celtic crosses adorning the mantelpiece.

Mayo on the other hand lacked a bit of those traits and seemed to get too caught up in trying to unsettle Donegal. Cillian O’Connor in particular tried to rough up the elder of the McGees, preventing quick frees, throwing the ball away and then taking a pop shot at Anthony Thompson. These could be described as legitimate tactics in the modern game that are used by many teams but it didn’t seem to do Mayo any favours.

Thompson got another box towards the end of the game from Aidan O’Shea but the teak tough Naomh Conaill man soldiered on and he’s another who’s had a hugely impressive year.

Jim was as decisive as always on the line, taking off three players in Ryan Bradley, Patrick McBrearty and Leo McLoone who were playing well and making contributions. Jim is never slow to change things and when he felt he needed fresher legs the substitutions arrived. It was one of the side’s veterans who made the biggest impact with Christy Toye producing a fine cameo for the last fifteen minutes.

As the final whistle got nearer and the finishing line came into view Donegal naturally retreated and ensured that their goal would not be breached. Paddy McGrath gave another brilliant corner back display and he’s had a super year. Indeed he was excellent all throughout last year too but it’s only now he’s starting to get due recognition from national media.

Indeed not getting due recognition doesn’t stop with Paddy. So many pundits and so-called experts derided the team last year and seemed to think that what we produced against Dublin was the endgame in Donegal’s development. They either refused to believe that we were a work in progress or else just didn’t have the foresight to see what McGuinness was building.

Mayo moved O’Shea to the edge of the square for a last throw of the dice in the closing stages. Close to the same spot where he unleashed his bullet for the first goal, Michael twice climbed highest to get his hand to the last two air missiles launched in the big Mayo man’s direction.
He knew the finishing line and the Holy Grail was close and we needed a man to lead us there. It was fitting end to a man of the match display. Throughout the second half he was constantly giving encouragement to his team-mates, applauding their efforts and demanding more.

Sunday was the start of an exciting time for the players and supporters alike. Donegal Town was packed last night and we were treated to Jim on stage with Daniel O’Donnell giving a rousing rendition of Destination Donegal.

This week will go quickly for the players as they go a whistle stop tour of the county. It’s the weeks after that when they get a chance to properly reflect on their achievement that the satisfaction will really hit home.

There are so many little aspects that we can look forward to that come with being All-Ireland Champions. Finding out who will we face first in defending our Ulster and All-Ireland crowns; how many All-Stars will we get? Which of our players will land the Footballer of the Year gong?

There are also novel occasions like the team receiving a guard of honour in their opening games of 2013. The All-Ireland Final DVD will fill manys a stocking this Christmas around the county. Sam will be present at club functions and schools over the next few months as he gets reacquainted with places he hasn’t seen in two decades.

The year started off with a McKenna Cup game against Jordanstown in O’Donnell Park and its interesting now to read back on all the early season reports knowing that it all ends up with Michael climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift Sam.

This could happen again in twelve months time, it could be twelve years time, who knows; so this is a time to be cherished – hold your head high, stick your chest out.

We’re the best team in the land - soak it up, breathe it in. Donegal are All-Ireland Champions, what a thing to be able to say.