By Chris McNulty in Ballybofey
IT was like a matchday at Sean MacCumhaill Park on Saturday.
Scores of Donegal supporters streaming over the bridge into the county ground, bedecked in green and gold and in high spirits and the tones of Christy Murray, the Donegal piper, filling the air atop the Finn’s waters.
Thousands turned out to watch the Donegal players take part in an open training session and some fans queued for almost three hours to get a prized autograph, photograph or a selfie with their heroes.
Fifteen days out from the senior and minor All-Ireland football finals against Kerry, there were clear signs that the All-Ireland buzz had bitten again. Most were still living off the adrenaline of last Sunday’s pulsating semi-final win over Dublin.
“I had no voice until Friday!” beamed Kilcar’s Mary ‘Football’ Breslin.
“I never sat in the seat at all – I’d have been better off with a ticket for Hill 16.
“It was just a great day. It was a special day. When the minors won I kind of thought: ‘Well, at least one of them will have won’, but to get the two into the final is just unreal. It’s absolutely brilliant.”
Stephen Bell from Doneyloop is another of Donegal’s most loyal fans. Never afraid to tell Jim McGuinness if he has a rare off day, Stephen was in optimistic form ahead of the big day.
He said: “It’s going to be a great day for the county to have both teams in the final. It will be a tight game, but I think Donegal will win by a few points.”
Brendan O’Reilly has been following Donegal since the 1960s and has rarely missed a game since the early 80s.
“I was never as proud as I was last Sunday – I never had a day like it in my life,” said the well-known O’Reilly, who himself has given a lot to the county. Now resident in Sligo, Brendan has driven players back to Donegal for training and the O’Reilly home has been a home-from-home for Donegal players all down the years.
“I remember some of these boys coming to Drumboe on winters evenings – a lot of people wouldn’t realise that commitment,” he said.
Brendan always believed that Donegal could lift their game.
“I think we were disrespected by the Dublin media – they never gave us a prayer,” he added.
“The Dublin boys must have been hearing and seeing all that stuff. Sure the only way to avoid it would be to head to Lough Derg for a week.
“We needed this after last year.”
On Palm Sunday in 1965, Edmund Brennan went to Croke Park for the first time alongside his father. He was twelve years old and watched Donegal lose a National League semi-final to Kerry.
A staunch supporter of the county’s young footballers, Edmund was emotional as he reflected on last Sunday’s heroics.
“Down the years I’ve always been a passionate supporter of underage football,” he said.
“It was great to be able to live the day to see Donegal in an All-Ireland minor final.
“We have fallen at the semi-final hurdles so many times I started to wonder if we’d ever see that day. It was one of the best days ever.”
Na Rossa stalwart Felix Melly is of a younger vintage but is another who travels the country in support of Donegal – in good times and bad. With plenty of club connections to the minor panel, Felix will be in his seat early in two weeks’ time.
“There’s a great buzz. The boys are so involved in the club and do so much for the club. It’s great for them and it gives the whole are the lift.
“With Declan (Bonner) involved again it’s reinventing the buzz and bringing it all back to the area.”
While supporters mingled with players from the senior and minor panels, respective managers Jim McGuinness and Declan Bonner – two men who’ve seen plenty of big days in Ballybofey – could be seen wearing proud expressions as the surveyed the scene.
There, too, were men like John Gildea, Mark Crossan and Sylvester Maguire, former soldiers of the Donegal shirt now returning as supporters.
County Chairman Sean Dunnion praised the players for being so giving of their time with supporters.
“From Jim down, they are great ambassadors,” he said.
“They appreciate the success they’ve had and the support they get it through the way. They’re superstars in this county, but the way they conduct themselves you wouldn’t think that.”
Christy Murray is forty years following Donegal. The Raphoe resident has become a familiar face at games and if you don’t seem him then keep an ear out for his famous bagpipes.
“We are where we belong,” he said.
“We always had great players but now we have a manager that instils total confidence – let’s believe.”