BY CHRIS MCNULTY
JOE Boyle reached heights never before scaled by a Donegal hurling captain last year, but there remains a nagging sense of unfinished business as the curtain goes up on the new campaign.
Boyle led his men up the thirty-six steps of the Hogan Stand last June after they overcame Roscommon in a tense Nicky Rackard Cup final.
It was nirvana for Donegal hurling folk, their first ever taste of glory in the competition, two years after they’d bagged the Lory Meagher Cup.
But for a change of the system, Donegal would now be looking ahead to clashing ash in the reaches of the Christy Ring Cup, hurling’s second tier.
A couple of months prior to their win over Roscommon in Croke Park, Donegal lost the Division 3A final to Fingal in Breffni Park, just after losing to the same opposition in the final group game in Letterkenny.
At just the wrong time, the eyes went off the ball. It is perhaps one silver lining in the cloud of having to jostle in the Nicky Rackard again that they’ve a chance of redemption in the League before tackling their Champinship again.
“We have to push in the League,” Boyle says.
“If we happen to win the Nicky Rackard and go up to the Christy Ring, well you really need to be playing up a Division in the League. So, this year, the first thing we want to do is to get promotion in the League.
“The way the League finished last year was very disappointing. We lost the two games to Fingal, one in the group and then the final.
“We played a weakened team in the game in Letterkenny because we knew we were already in the final.
“I think we might have taken the final a wee bit for granted, too. It just didn’t happen for us. We knew that we’d let ourselves down. It did spur us on because we knew we were better than that.”
The 26-year old had been in Croke Park before – Donegal losing Lory Meagher finals to Tyrone and Longford in 2009 and ’10 before they overcame Tyrone in the 2011 decider – but last year was different.
He was the skipper of the ship.
From the Donegal hurling mecca of Burt, he didn’t need an explanation about what it meant.
Pucking around as a youngster at Hibernian Park, it had all been an innocent dream.
Last June, it became reality.
“Growing up I never really thought that going up those steps on the Hogan Stand was something that I could go on and do – especially playing hurling for Donegal,” he says.
“Whatever chance we’d have in the football, growing up we never thought that we’d have any chance in the hurling.
“When it happened, it took a while to sink in. We were over the moon. The few days after it were mental.”
Ray Durack hurled in the trenches for Burt in his time. He was appointed as the manager of the Donegal senior hurlers two years ago last month. He hails from Portumna, the hurling country of the Cannings in Galway.
Andrew Wallace stepped aside after leading Donegal to the Lory Meagher title in 2011. Durack rose the mercury again.
“The best thing to happen Ray was serving the time as minor manager,” Boyle says.
“He saw there a few talented players and, when he made the step up, he took them along with him. Those players alongside the experienced boys was a great mix and it’s gone from strength-to-strength since.
“I remember back when I was coming onto the Donegal team at the start, there was a feeling there that we weren’t being taken seriously, that we we were kind of being pushed aside.
“Over the last few years, though, the county board and everyone has made sure that we’ve taken a really professional approach to the game.
“Everything now is 100 per cent.”
Boyle played a bit of League hurling in 2006 but had drifted away by the summer when Donegal hurled in Croke Park, losing to Derry in a Nicky Rackard final. They were teeth-clenching days, as Boyle says: “We felt we were good enough over the years, but could never stand up to it.”
In their opening Nicky Rackard game of 2013, a Sean McVeigh goal gave Donegal win over Roscommon in Athleague. When the final came along, Donegal knew they had the Rossies’ number.
Boyle says: “Roscommon were one of the favourites to win it. We played them down there and, while people might have thought that we caught them on the hop, we knew ourselves that we were good enough to beat them.
“We got real belief that day. We played them off the park and coming into the final we had the homework done and had everything in place.
“Our fitness work and our stick work were there. In the mind that was huge. We knew we were prepared for it.”
Boyle comes from good sporting stock. He is a first cousin of the Donegal footballer, Rory Kavanagh, an All-Ireland football winner in 2012.
As they head for Ballyshannon on Sunday to face Fermanagh, they’ve a bit between the teeth again.
“We have to prove that we’re good enough to get into the Christy Ring. How we do that is by winning the Nicky Rackard again; that’s the only way,” he says.
“We need to show in the League what we’re made of. We’ll have to prove ourselves again.
“We played teams like Derry and Mayo in challenge games last year and we did okay, there wasn’t much in them. We want to be playing as high a standard of hurling as we can – that’s the only way to improve hurling in Donegal.”