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Donegal's new-found maturity

BY CHRIS MCNULTY

FRANK McGlynn featured in the Donegal v Derry match-day programme, in the ‘For Club and County’ series, and answered a series of questions about life in general.

These things are usually done in jest.

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McGlynn reckons Ryan Bradley is the worst trainer in the Donegal squad, that ‘any tackling drill against David Walsh’ is the worst training drill and the best thing about the GAA is ‘beating certain players at cards on the bus!’

The Glenfin man, though, bore a serious side when asked about his pet hate. ‘Wasting time’, he answered.

Donegal footballers have done enough of that over the years.

It was one of the pet hates, too, of Jim McGuinness’s playing days with Donegal. The raw materials were always in Donegal, but they’d go off-the-cuff and give supporters a day or two out a year before making their exit. Everyone loved Donegal back then – but they were never serious challengers despite a couple of fleeting threats.

“I’ve always liked Donegal football,” wrote Oisin McConville in his autobiography ‘The Gambler’. “When others were trying to counteract this threat and that, they just got on with it. They didn’t always win, but they played their own game…”

That was so frustrating for McGuinness when he played.

All that has changed under his management – and McGlynn perhaps best embodies the McGuinness way now.

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Tomorrow evening, Donegal come up against a team they still regard as the one to beat in Ulster.

A lot has changed from a similar meeting five summers ago.

In 2007, Donegal headed to St Tiernach’s Park for a semi-final joust on the crest of the biggest wave they’d rode in some time. Having won a first-ever National League crown a couple of months earlier, Donegal then finally annexed their Armagh ghosts when a dramatic last-ditch winning goal saw Brian McIver’s men beat the Orchard in Ballybofey.

Waiting in the wings was Tyrone.

Donegal’s confidence couldn’t have been higher. Tyrone, as they have this weekend, had an extensive injury list that sunny Sunday, but the Red Hands were a class apart. Although Kevin Cassidy goaled in the 11th minute for Donegal, it papered over the many cracks that began to appear – with Mickey Harte’s men delivering painful blow after blow to Donegal’s brittle bottle.

Five minutes from time, the game was up. Colm McFadden found himself swamped by Tyrone men and Conor Gormley had a chuckle at the St Michael’s man. Brian Dooher threw in his tuppence worth and McFadden exploded.

The pent-up anger from the Donegal forward went into a right hook he’d learned back in his days in the Dunfanaghy boxing club with Eddie Harkin and caught Dooher flush on the jaw.

Referee David Coldrick brandished red. McFadden made the lonely walk and Donegal headed for the qualifiers. In his absence for the qualifer against Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon, a 17-year old by the name of Michael Murphy was handed a debut.

A lot has changed in five summers.

When the teams met in Clones at this stage last year, McGuinness was keen to remember the ills of 2007. McFadden, like the team, had come a long way in that period, and the squad was instructed not to react. There’d be no engaging in verbals. The eyes wouldn’t be taken off the focus. ‘Not today’, it was said, was to be the Donegal response.

Donegal kept the discipline and kept their focus to score a win that remains perhaps the stand-out result for McGuinness. It may well be wrong to place it ahead of last year’s Ulster final or that never-to-be-forgotton night in Croke Park when time stood still against Kildare, but for the Donegal manager, and many like him, Tyrone were the benchmark. And still are.

They’d set the bar. Now Donegal want to raise it.

Donegal have a new-found maturity about them under McGuinness – something that’s been enhanced still this summer.

Last year, the raw talents of Patrick McBrearty were unleashed on Ulster football for the first time. He had a lot to learn in his Leaving Certificate year – and his recent performances show he did just that. The Kilcar man had a difficult spell in the run up to the Derry game – but 24 hours after downing the pen for the final time in his exams he belied his youthful years with a mature display.

His incisive pass to Colm McFadden for the second goal told us all we needed to about his development. Players of a more experienced vintage might have opted to go it alone, but McBrearty’s pass waited for the perfect moment. When it came, it had a deadly outcome.

“He came into the squad at 17 and he has it all physically and mentally,” McGuinness said of the prodigiously talented McBrearty.

“He fatigued a bit near the end but he still played very well.”

Martin O’Reilly is another to be taken from the cold into McGuinness’ plans and the Ballybofey teenager has taken to it like a duck to water, although he hasn’t featured prominently in the championship.

Others of an age like McFadden, Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher now take expectation and demands as a matter of form.

No longer are they a burden.

Five years ago, they buckled under the hype when steamrolled by Tyrone.

One of McGuinness’ big strengths has been quelling the hype machine. Other provinces are hearing calls for a cessation of the current system in favour of an open draw. McGuinness balks at the suggestion. Ulster remains dear to his heart.

He watched Tyrone shape a dynasty of sorts over the last decade and more and now the Donegal dream is to shape their own stranglehold on the province. Again Tyrone remain the biggest block they’ll have to ship to conquer it.

Donegal has never won two successive Ulster titles – to do so, they must first really knock Tyrone off their perch.

Tomorrow in Clones it’s as it was in 2007: David Coldrick from Meath referees an Ulster semi-final between Donegal and Tyrone.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Of all the qualities that McGuinness has brought to the table, that maturity he’s instilled in the squad has been one of the most important – it now means they’re fast becomming the team to beat.

Handling that tag would have weighed down Donegal teams of the past.

Not so, it appears, this one.

Frank McGlynn was asked in the same programme what advice he’d give to youngsters.

“Practice, practice and more practice.”

It does, they say, make perfect. Just ask Jim McGuinness.

c.mcnulty@donegalnews.com

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