BY CHRIS MCNULTY
DARACH O’Connor was only born in November 1995.
By that stage, the star dust had left Donegal football. The boys of ‘92 had begun to drift into the sunset and summers became hopeful more than expectant.
County training had ceased by the time the leaves began to float,
PJ McGowan lifted the baton after Brian McEniff departed and Declan Bonner tried to rekindle the fire when he reached onto the track and picked it up in the autumn of 1997, on the day of his 32nd birthday.
1998 saw Donegal go close, only denied a slice of glory by Joe Brolly’s dramatic last-minute goal in the Ulster final.
What might have been.
The generation before O’Connor’s had hung onto the coat tails of the heroes of ‘92, but for the young Buncrana resident there was little to inspire. By the time he’d reached his tenth birthday, Donegal had a glimpse of the big days, but an appearance in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final was followed by an Ulster final annihilation by Armagh the following year.
They wouldn’t come as close as ‘98 again until 2011, when they finally crossed the bridge into the Promised Land. Final defeats against Armagh hurt hard in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
The latter, when a Paul McGrane goal separated the teams at Croke Park – during the booming days when the Ulster Council took its counties on a road trip to GAA HQ with the M1 motorway still under construction – was as near as they’d come.
Ulster, as a province, has always been the tough nut to crack. Derry’s famine stretches back to 1998 and Down have awaited the Anglo-Celt’s return since 1994. Last year, Monaghan quenched a twenty-five-year thirst. For Donegal, 2011 brought to an end their own wait, which went back to the glory days of ‘92.
“It’s prestigious, so prestigious,” Jim McGuinness said this week.
“The Ulster Championship means a lot to an awful lot of people. You look at the strong football counties who have waited so long to win the thing. For that reason, it is special and it backs up the feeling that it’s important.
“The medal is so hard to win. Many teams would see an All-Ireland as beyond them; in Ulster, you just look at the province first and you don’t really think about anything else until the Ulster Championship is over for your team.”
By the time McGuinness cracked the code, O’Connor looked lost to Donegal.
A talented soccer player with Buncrana Hearts, he seemed to have his sport chosen. He flirted with the fringes of the Republic of Ireland Schoolboy teams and it appeared if he was going to be another of the lost souls of Gaelic football.
McGuinness got into the Donegal panel for ‘92. At only 19, he was the baby on the periphery, but he watched and wondered what it’d be like to have the teeth really stuck into days like that. He can relate to youngsters like O’Connor who could be forgiven if a little starstruck.
In four campaigns, he has won more games in Ulster (12) than Donegal had won in the rest of O’Connor’s lifetime (11).
Last Sunday, as O’Connor blasted his way through the Antrim rearguard to smash in his first ever goal for the Donegal senior team, the genie came from the bottle. This was just a few days after he’d finished his Leaving Cert.
“It was nice to see Jigger get a goal,” McGuinness said.
“He did well to turn back onto his right foot and got the goal.
“There was a wee bit of class there and he does have that little trick up his sleeve. He was well goosed by the time we took him off as he had run himself into the ground.”
O’Connor’s father, John ‘Jigger’ O’Connor is a legend in his own right. Just 35 seconds into the 1980 All-Ireland final, O’Connor – playing for Roscommon – scored a goal past Kerry’s Charlie Nelligan.
He relocated to Donegal and now ‘Jigger’ junior looks set for a big future.
It could have been so different. O’Connor didn’t play for the county at Under-16 or Under-17 level, but Stephen Friel put a call in and earmarked him for the minors last year.
In an interview with the Donegal News before captaining the minors against Tyrone in the Championship he told his story: “Two years ago, I decided to go solely at the soccer, but I missed the Gaelic football something savage.
“I’d miss the soccer now, but there’s no comparison to what this feels like.”
He’d watched the Ulster finals of 2011, 2012 and 2013 from much the same vantage point.
“Always up where those boys are dancing,” O’Connor observed last Sunday, pointing to the cluster of supporters on the St Tiernach’s Park Hill.
“I’ve always been there, supporting the lads. To get the chance to play in an Ulster final is a dream come true. Hopefully we can now get an Ulster out of this.”
Donegal are into their fourth Ulster final in a row. Only once in the history of the GAA has Donegal managed to reach a figure like that – between 1989 and 1993 they contested five on the spin, winning two (1990 and 1992).
There are scores of fans bedecked in green and gold who recall not very much about those days. For them, this is a new feeling.
McGuinness and Donegal have a month to get ready to take on Monaghan or Armagh in the Ulster final on July 20th – and it’s a prize that means a lot to the Glenties man.
He said: “Every single Ulster championship match is there to be won and it’s there on it’s own merits. Antrim are no different to how we look at every other game.
“We have to focus on ourselves and get a performance from ourselves and that’s what we managed to do. We’re delighted to do that.
“Thankfully now we’ve bought ourselves another month leading into the Ulster final and that’s exactly where we wanted to be at. We’re there now and we want to make the most of this opportunity.”
Odhrán MacNiallais joined O’Connor in having a telling impact on Sunday, scoring four points and bagging the Man of the Match award.
“I was really delighted to get the chance because competition for places is pretty keen,” he said.
“Thankfully it worked well for me. Midfield is not a position that I have played all that much but I am enjoying it since Jim gave me the chance.
“I think I played once there last year for the club, in the last league game of the season and I have played there once this year for the club.
“I had a few outings in the league in the position and they went well enough for me and I played the first half in midfield the last day against Derry and I felt it went well for me too.”
MacNiallais is another who was brought up on stories of summers of old; days before his time when Donegal were kings.
There are new swathes of supporters who know only the present as the glory days.
O’Connor was in a Leaving Cert year that included Caolan McGonagle, who played for the Donegal minors in their semi-final win over Antrim. For only the fifth time in history – after 1963, 1991, 1992 and 2006 – both teams will be in action on Ulster final Sunday. Never before has the double been done by Donegal.
Bonner, who came so close to the Anglo-Celt in 1998, is at the helm of a minor side that is the best prepared minor outfit ever to have gone across the borders of Donegal.
The same can be said of McGuinness and his seniors. With the infusion of the likes of O’Connor and MacNiallais into his system, there is confidence again in the summer.
O’Connor’s generation never had a successful bandwagon to jump aboard, but now he and his ilk can be at the controls of one.
With a summer of promise for both the seniors and minors, Donegal must make the most of it.
There’s a previous generation who can tell you all about how quickly these days can pass.