By Frank Craig
Colm McFadden believes Donegal are better than any side going forward in the country, including Dublin.
The 2012 All-Ireland winner was part of the last side, Donegal back in 2014, to beat the five-in-a-row history chasers in Championship warfare.
McFadden hit 1-3 that day when a Donegal surge flattened the Dubs in what was a huge semi-final upset.
He, like the rest of the country, has been impressed with how Donegal have gone about their Championship business so far this season.
Monday’s draw pits Donegal against either Meath or Clare in their opening Super 8s clash at MacCumhaill Park on the weekend of July 13/14.
The second round games will see Donegal take on Kerry in Croke Park on the weekend of July 20/21 July. The final round of games will be played on weekend of August 3/4 when Donegal will travel to either Galway or Mayo.
It’s a tricky passage but it’s one McFadden believes Donegal can navigate through.
“They have been really impressive,” he told the Donegal News. “The whole way through the campaign, they’ve impressed me. Going forward, they’re something else.
“I’d say they’re the best team in country at this moment going forward. And that includes Dublin. They’ve energy right throughout the field.
“The lads up top are a serious danger, Paddy McBrearty and Jamie Brennan. To be fair to Jamie, I thought he was also very good last year.
“He’s only a young fella yet, I think he’s 23. But he definitely has progressed this season. The thing I like about him is that he’s very direct. He looks to take on his marker.
“He looks to ask the question of his marker more often than not. He’s not afraid to use it (speed). When Jamie gets the ball, the defender knows right away he’s going to get run at.
“That’s a frightening thought for any corner back that knows he’s going to be up against him. I see some defenders looking to give themselves a yard now, standing off him.
“But when that happens he’s taking the shot on and kicking it over the bar. It’s really interesting to watch.”
McFadden was in his usual No. 15 jersey nine seasons ago when Jim McGuinness stunned everyone and sent a 17-year-old Patrick McBrearty in for the latter stages of their Ulster preliminary-round fixture against Antrim.
The Kilcar man had already featured for the minor team in the curtain-raiser but this was a statement from McGuinness. The mercurial Glenties native was telling the world that McBrearty was special.
McBrearty is close to getting back to his absolute best after his cruciate ligament snap last year. He’s improved game on game and McFadden is now backing his former team mate to really ignite in the second half of the Championship campaign.
He explains: “It’s mad to think Paddy did his cruciate this time last year. He’s back now and has three Ulster Championship games under his belt.
“He’s motoring rightly. And it’s exciting to know he’s capable of going up another couple of levels yet. It’s a confidence injury – and it takes a little time. But the encouraging thing is that he’s improved every game.
“I think the Super 8s will only help him with the fact he’s guaranteed three games.
“If Donegal could navigate their way out of that he’ll be even more dangerous.”
Confidence is high, both inside and outside the camp. Donegal supporters are bullish and there is a palpable belief that this side are capable of realising their most lofty of ambitions.
McFadden sees that potential too. But he has also warned Tir Chonaill supporters that Donegal will have to go up another level or two now they are outside of the province.
He explained: “Of course you have to be careful (with that expectation). But following on from last year, they are all a year older, a year further down the line in their development. And the more experienced lads look so good. Seriously, they are all motoring really well.
“Winning games and the confidence you get from winning Ulster is massive. Winning Ulster back-to-back is a big thing. It brings that confidence that little bit further on.
“People will talk but none of those boys will be getting too carried away with themselves. But I’m certain there will be a real belief there and they’ll want to really go at the Super 8s now and see where the summer takes them.
“Tyrone was a massive result and it was also a very comprehensive win. But they were straight back down to business after. The same focus was evident before the Cavan game.
“Watching the first-half, it was a serious performance.”
So much has changed in the four seasons since McFadden hung up his county boots. But one thing remains a constant and that is the importance of Michael Murphy to the team.
The blend Declan Bonner has assembled and knitted together is, McFadden feels, very similar to the one Jim McGuinness fashioned when he first came onto the senior scene in late 2010.
“Murphy is playing a nice role out there around the middle,” he continued. “He’s in and out and he’s moving with the momentum and the flow of the game.
“Michael Langan, Jason McGee, (Ciarán) Thompson and even big Hughie (McFadden) showed he’s got a serious boot on him when the chance presented itself.
“I joked with Big Neil (Gallagher) that it’s nice to finally see Donegal midfielders kicking points over the bar and getting up and down the field!
“To be fair, the likes of Jason McGee, Hugh McFadden and Michael Langan, they are all massive men. They’re very mobile and they can play football too.
“They can kick from distance too if that ball isn’t on inside. Any day Donegal go out you’d nearly fancy them to kick 20 points.”
He added: “There is a nice blend of youth and age. But there is a nice blend and spread of scorers too.
“It’s very similar to 2011. I often think about that. I remember the likes of Paddy McGrath, Paddy McBrearty, Leo and one or two others coming in and there was a good few of us others already there for a while.
“The younger lads really freshened things up that time and I’m sure that new energy is also keeping all those lads I’ve mentioned, who are that little bit older now, on their toes.
“There is that energy but it’s also very important to know when to slow a game down or kill it off. And the likes of Frank (McGlynn), Neil McGee and even Michael have that experience to know when it’s time to pull back on the reins a little.
“There is composure there and it all complements each other really well.”
One of Donegal’s real and most potent weapons are Shaun Patton’s restarts. The variation in the speed and distance of those kickouts is spectacular.
McFadden is in no doubt that Paul Durcan coming back in the mix has had a positive impact on the St. Eunan’s clubman.
“I’d say ‘Pappa’ is giving just as much advice as he is putting Shaun under pressure. Patton’s long kicking is excellent. I remember watching him last year and he was hitting the opposition’s ’45.
“But this year he’s getting it out at speed and there is so much variety. Against Tyrone, that alone caused them serious bother. He’s done very well.”
Another former team-mate and pal, Karl Lacey, may also have called time on his playing career but he hasn’t stepped away. Donegal’s most decorated player is now an integral part of the management set-up.
“Karl wasn’t one of the most vocal but when he did speak you listened because it had weight and it was always well thought out,” said McFadden.
“He’d be direct and he’ll get his point across. There would be no waffling. That’s his strength. The boys would have so much respect for him. He’s done so much in the game.
“I’m sure he’s making a real contribution there.”
McFadden has never met current Donegal coach Stephen Rochford. But he sees his experiences with Mayo becoming more of a factor now that Donegal are outside of the Ulster Championship.
“I don’t know much about him or what he’s at at training but from the outside looking in, his Mayo were the only side able to put up a challenge to this Dublin team. They played a man to man game and looked to press up.
“I’m sure he’s adding that dimension. It’s probably something you need to get to that extra level and challenge Dublin.
“There is that wee danger you could leave yourself a little open when you do play that expansive game. But it’s the risk that sides are going to have to take if Dublin are to be rattled.”
The St. Michael’s man finished up with his county in 2015, having spent 14 seasons in the green and gold.
He made his debut back in 2002 but had to wait 10 years until he finally tasted Ulster SFC success. Now outside of that bubble, he admits that the commitment required to play county senior football meant that so many other things in his life had to be pushed to one side.
But, it the end, all those sacrifices were definitely worth it.
“It was everything,” he said of his time playing senior county football. “It completely took over your whole life. You’d work of course but you really couldn’t take on much else as football took up so much of your time and focus.
“It took a little getting used to when I retired. The first year was a little strange. You were glad of the wee break. Funny, the second year then you began to miss it and you remembered why you did it, why it was so important.
“But when it’s time to go, it’s time to go. Come summer, you do still miss it a little. But I certainly don’t miss the training and all that goes into it to get you ready for summer!
“Training was enjoyable, most of the time. But it was the time away from home, especially with a young family, that was the tough part.
“I was really lucky in the end. Some lads spent 10 or 12 years in it and came away with nothing. I was there nine myself before we did it (in Ulster). It was nearly looking that way for a good few of us.
“But then Jim came in and we’d that fantastic run. It’s funny to see young lads come in now and they’re off the mark right away.
“They’re getting medals in their pockets and it’s brilliant to see. I think they could add a few more now it the next few years. The potential is definitely there to leave a real stamp in Ulster.”