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On a starry night, winter crept in as thousands salute Donegal teams at homecoming

The Diamond in Donegal Town packed out to support the seniors and minors on Monday night. (Thanks to Diamond Lodgings for the use of the top floor view). Photo: Brian McDaid

The Diamond in Donegal Town packed out to support the seniors and minors on Monday night. (Thanks to Diamond Lodgings for the use of the top floor view).
Photo: Brian McDaid

CHRIS MCNULTY
was in Donegal town

AS they stood, red-eyed and ashen faced, some of them arms linked in support of the next man, Donegal’s brothers-in-arms took in the appreciation of some 6,000 supporters at an emotional homecoming at the Diamond in Donegal town on Monday night.

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On a starry night by Donegal Bay, winter crept in as Jim McGuinness and the Donegal senior footballers were introduced one-by-one, taking a hero’s moment of acclaim just over 24 hours after their All-Ireland final defeat by Kerry at Croke Park.

Sunday had been a historic day for Donegal football as minor and senior teams took to the field for the All-Ireland finals, but neither team’s bus had a cup to wave to a crowd that has been swept along over a memorable summer.

Managers McGuinness and Declan Bonner each spoke of their admiration for the support, which had been evident from a post-final banquet the night before in the Citywest Hotel attended by almost 3,000 people.

As they stood gazing out towards The Abbey Hotel, Donegal GAA’s spiritual home, some were overcome with emotion. Michael Murphy – ‘an unbelievable captain’ his manager said – was struggling to keep the tears back as he led his team onto the stage, the eyes of veteran forward Colm McFadden filled and for others there was nothing only emptiness.

For Paul Durcan, there remained the devastation of his nightmare second-half moment when he was caught for Kerry’s second goal, but the big goalkeeper received one of the biggest cheers of the night. “Without him, we wouldn’t have reached the All-Ireland final,” as former Donegal manager Tom Connaghan pointed out.

To their right, the shop front of local craft shop had what seemed a subliminal message to the audience in the name above the door: Forget-Me-Not.

A nine-minute address by McGuinness brought silence, punctured by those brief moments when applause and acclaim was required. They knew when.

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“There is a lot of pain on the stage,” McGuinness said.

“There is a lot of emotion on the stage. More than anything in the world we wanted to bring the Sam Maguire Cup back to Donegal.

“The support that we have had has been second to none. We didn’t expect a homecoming let alone the crowd that we have here. It has been very humbling to come back into our own county and see the level of support.”

Supporters were keen for a show of solidarity to McGuinness and his players. The previous day, Paul Geaney and Kieran Donaghy netted the goals that effectively handed Donegal their coat in the cloakroom of their own party.

At the end of a four-year tenure as manager, McGuinness was giving nothing away as to his next move. ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy…’ the crowd roared as one.

“We are blessed that Jim McGuinness was born in Donegal,” agreed the Chairman of the Donegal County Board, Sean Dunnion.

“We must remember a couple of short months ago when we came back from Clones with the Ulster Minor Championship and the Ulster Senior Championship. We have to remember that we have something very precious to show for 2014.”

McGuinness carried a squad of 29 through the summer. Each one was in Donegal town and McGuinness spoke of the ‘unbelievable human beings’ those same players had become during his tenure.

“It has been just phenomenal to work with them and I want everyone in Donegal to acknowledge them,” McGuinness said.

“I’ve been working with teams since I was sixteen years of age – 25 years believe it or not – and this group of people is without a shadow of doubt the best people, never mind players, I have ever worked with.”

The first man to greet McGuinness as he stepped off the team bus on the Main Street was Brian McEniff, Donegal football’s godfather. The familiar flat-capped figure of McEniff had a quiet word with McGuinness, whom he called into his Donegal squad for the year of years in 1992.

Daniel O’Donnell kept the crowd entertained and was joined by Mickey Joe Harte for an appropriate rendition of Stand By Me.

“I’m even more proud to be here tonight,” Daniel told the Master of Ceremonies, Sean Perry.

“We need to be here tonight more than ever.  These players brought light to the county when everything else was dark.”

The Mayor of Donegal, Cllr John Campbell, agreed that ‘they have done us extremely proud’. Each player was introduced to the crowd by Eamon Gorrell, Chairman of the Four Masters club.

They came from all corners of Donegal to show their support to the history-making teams, the seniors with three Ulster titles, an All-Ireland title and another All-Ireland final, and Declan Bonner’s minors, who became the first-ever Donegal team to contest an All-Ireland minor final.

“We thought that we could be the first Donegal minor team to come back with the Tom Markham Cup, but unfortunately we came up just short,” the Lettermacaward man said in his speech.

“In three years of competitive football, their first defeat was in the All-Ireland final. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. It wasn’t a nice experience, but they’ll come back the stronger for it.”

Forget them not?

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