BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THERE are moments in weeks like this that stand out.
On Sunday evening around quarter past nine the bus carrying the 2012 Ulster champions rolled into Donegal town.
Thousands wedged into the packed town centre. Countless more streamed out of the town’s bars and hotels to line Quay Street as the Donegal Town Community Band (who happened to be crowned Ulster Champions themselves earlier in the day) played the Donegal team, led by captain fantastic Michael Murphy, into a delirious Diamond.
Murphy was flanked by the Four Masters contingent – Paul Durcan, Karl Lacey and Barry Dunnion.
Cameraman Brendan O’Donnell was there, as always, to capture the moments. On the video clip on his YouTube page, you can see a clip that shows the real inner strength of this squad.
Barry Dunnion hasn’t played competitively for Donegal since last February, but was recalled to the squad for the beginning of the Championship. In 2006, when Donegal were pipped at the post by Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final, Dunnion had excelled that year and was an All-Star nominee that year.
He’s had some false dawns in his time – on the pitch and, most especially, off it. He seemed uneasy on Sunday night as he took centre stage in his home town.
“Hi, I don’t deserve this…,” he mentioned to Murphy. The captain’s response was telling: “You deserve it more than anybody else.”
Dunnion hasn’t competitively under Jim McGuinness since the opening National League game of 2011 against Sligo – but the Four Masters man is regarded as a key member of the group.
That’s the thing that marks this bunch out as being unique – they’re all equals.
A few players behind Dunnion was Patrick McBrearty.
They’ve probably trained as many times as each other with Donegal over the last twelve months – but for very different reasons.
Dunnion has been dogged by persistent injury problems for four years now, but the hard sessions along with Adam Speer are beginning to pay off for the Donegal town native.
McBrearty is another who hasn’t been seen too much around the Donegal set-up.
“Patrick has only trained with us about 25 times in the last two years and he has two Ulster medals,” Jim McGuinness observed after Sunday’s final win over Down.
“Before the game myself and Rory Gallagher were just saying that it would be a good book to write – how to win two Ulster championships and train 25 times. He’s fresh anyway, I’ll give him that!”
McBrearty was with the squad last year for around three months and this year he’s been seen even less. The Kilcar man is just 18, but has two Ulster medals in his hip pocket. He completed his Leaving Cert the day before the Ulster quarter-final against Derry in June.
A quick headcount by the Kilcar man this week totted the training total to be ‘30 max’.
“I had two sessions in January, just one in February and only about half-a-dozen during the League. The rest has been very restricted,” McBrearty says.
“I’d have been doing a lot on my own.
“I’d be out a lot in Kilcar. If I’d had a break in study, I’d have gone out for a jog. I’m not one to go two or three days in a row doing nothing, so I’d have something done, whether it be core, light jogging, anything.”
There is an unbreakable bond in this group of players.
Everything is about the group and there are no half measures with anything.
No stone is unturned.
That was even the case with the team’s dress on Sunday evening. They emerged from St Tiernach’s Park dressed to impress: Every member of the panel and backroom team wore high-fashion beige chinos, specially commissioned Ulster Final 2012 polo shirts and white plimsolls. The outfits, supplied by the McCloskey brothers JP and Mark and their team from Evolve Menswear in Letterkenny, showed the professional side of this team – the most professionally prepared of any Donegal team ever.
McGuinness has carefully constructed his backroom team. He read a list of 16 names from the stage at the Diamond on Sunday night: Assistant manager Rory Gallagher, video analyst Maxi Curran; goalkeeping coach Pat Shovelin; strength and conditioning coaches Adam Speer and Eugene Eivers; Mr Kevin Moran and Dr Charlie McManus; physio Dermot Simpson; physical therapists JD McGrenra and Donal Reid; kitman Joseph McCloskey; logistics manager Michael McMenamin; as well as Gavin Ward, Charles McGuinness, Charlie Molloy and Paul Coyle.
None is more important than the other.
Teams of old had factions and cliques; not so this one.
“It has been incredible,” says Colm McFadden. “It’s a credit to Jim and Rory that they have got us focussed and every man is now pulling in the right direction.”
Players of McFadden’s vintage had come close before, but now they’ve finally taken their place in the stars. The likes of Brian McIvor and Mickey Moran before him tried to haul Donegal into the professional era, but were basically prevented from doing so. McGuinness appeared in the summer of 2010 and the course of history was altered: The nearly men crossed the line; the bridesmaids finally caught the bouquet.
One of Buddah’s famous quotes tells us ‘when the student is ready the master will appear’ – the years were mounting and the near misses had taken a toll. When McGuinness came in, he transformed their lives and careers. The students were ready and the master McGuinness began to teach – and how they’ve blossomed in his class.
“The work they have put in was reflected in the performance,” McGuinness told the masses in Donegal town.
“That gives a great sense of wholeness almost, to be associated with them. Hopefully that will be reflected again in Croke Park.
“It is very special. It’s a great achievement by the players.
“I know the work they have put in more than anybody. I know the time, the effort, the commitment, the dedication that they have given to their county. Through all those nights and through all that training they’re hoping and praying for a night like tonight.
“Apart from being their manager, it gives me great pride as a Donegal man to stand here with this brilliant group of men who have come here for the second year in a row with the Anglo-Celt.”
Tom Connaghan had the distinction of giving the team the official welcome back into Donegal town. The Mayor of Donegal town, Connaghan managed Donegal to their first All-Ireland title – the U21s of 1982.
“The amount of effort, commitment and discipline that is in this team means that they can go anywhere in any county because, when they take to the field, they go to play the game the way they want it, not the way the opposition makes them play it,” Connaghan said.
Forging that bond seems to have come easy, but it’s something that will have developed on those nights in the Slieve Russell before games, on the team holiday to Florida last winter, or at their recent training camp in Johnstown House.
“We’re all in this together now,” says Christy Toye.
“This bond is something that doesn’t come around too often in teams. We have worked on creating it and success has followed. You can see with the reaction at the final whistle on Sunday how much it means to these boys.”
On his flying visits to the squad this year, Patrick McBrearty has been struck by it too.
“I didn’t notice it last year, but I was only new in the squad and I wasn’t part of it for the whole year,” says the Kilcar lad.
“There is no bitterness in the squad or anything, no-one has favourites if you like – we’re all comfortable mixing with anyone. Every man can have the craic, but we’re all willing to dig in for one another too. That unity does tell. You can see it in training and in matches.”
McBrearty has become a real team player of late. He scored just once on Sunday, but his recent performances have been those of a player who has really matured into a special talent.
“It’s something I wanted to change in my game,” he says.
“I wanted to be a player to make opportunities for players and I wanted to bring that into my game. I wanted to be known as a player who’d win some of the dirty ball and create the chances for the likes of Colm and Michael.
“I’m enjoying it so much and I think this is the best football I’ve ever played. I think I’ve matured a lot in the last year with Donegal.”
Players and backroom boys gave a rendition of ‘Baby Give It Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band from the stage – and its tones could also be heard coming from the Donegal dressing room after the game.
McBrearty may only be 18, but the success he has achieved in such a short time is phenomenal. He and others have spoken about ending a barren spell – and talked about those men who soldiered without success in a county shirt.
“Everyone is saying that these are great times in Donegal – and they’re right. As players we can feel it and it has been an amazing two years,” says McBrearty.
“I wasn’t born in 1992, so I would only have known about the National League in 2007 as a successful day out supporting the Donegal senior team.
“I would have been out watching them in different Ulster finals and then to Croke Park for some big games, but in my childhood there was nothing like the county is experiencing now.”
Paddy McGrath spoke of having met Damian Diver after Donegal won the 2011 Division 2 title. “It’s just a league medal and I want to push on now and achieve bigger things,” McGrath had told his fellow Ardara man.
Diver quickly reminded McGrath that his League medal was ‘one more medal than I ever got’.
Among the throngs lining Donegal town’s streets on Sunday night were Matt Gallagher and Tony Boyle, two men who know all about big homecomings to the county. “Special nights are ahead with these players,” Boyle said in the foyer of the Abbey Hotel.
The year ending in 2 has been special for Donegal football. Donegal have developed that much-maligned style from 2011 into a devastating arsenal of attacking weaponry that sees them head for Croke Park primed for an assault on this island’s biggest prize.
The students are ready and the master is teaching.