BY CHRIS MCNULTY
PADDY Hannigan remembers an era in the not-too-distant past when hurling felt like an after-thought in Donegal.
The pattern after games was a familiar one. The team bus pulled up at a greasy takeaway on the road home from some National League outpost and the players fended for themselves. Time was when a post-match meal came in a brown paper bag.
Training was something that happened rather than being planned. Equipment was scarce, gear at times non-existent.
At some point in the last decade the entire mindset of the sport in Donegal changed.
Last Sunday, Donegal scored a 2-16 to 0-8 win over Fingal at Breffni Park to book a place in the elevator to Division 2B of the National Hurling League, a victory the manager Ray Durack believes to be ‘the biggest in the history of Donegal hurling’.
Paddy Hannigan turned 31 just last week. The Sean MacCumhaills man has seen the best and the worst of Donegal hurling in his time. On Sunday, he savoured the sweet taste of success again, his two goals securing Donegal’s passage to the next tier.
“The whole set up has changed now – everything is top quality,” says the Ballybofey man.
“For years, we were scowling that we were getting nothing. We’d be nyamin away that we had no sliotars, no hurleys. Now, though, everything down to the gear we have is top quality. We can’t say now that we’re the second-class team, that we aren’t getting the preparation the footballers get. Our preparation is superb.
“It has filtered down from the top. The likes of Ray and the coaching we get now has helped so much, but the likes of Seán Dunnion (Donegal County Board Chairman) and wee Frankie (Doherty, assistant treasurer) do a lot for hurling. Frankie is with us at every match we play – he’s a part of the team.
“The big change happened when men started to take it more seriously. We’ve shown in the last couple of years what can happen if you get the preparation right and if you put in the effort. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that was, but it was all about getting everyone rowing in the one direction.”
In 1996, Donegal won promotion to the then Division 3. The stay was short-lived. For the campaign of 1997, the likes of Darren McDermott – widely regarded as one of Burt’s best ever hurlers – Andrew Wallace and Ronan McLaughlin were unavailable for selection and Donegal made a swift return to Division 4.
A certain Ray Durack was a stalwart of the Donegal attack at the time. Beside him was Mickey McCann, then a fresh-faced hurler and now Durack’s right-hand man.
It’s now twenty-one years since Durack came to Donegal from his native Portumna, a hurling stronghold in Galway.
“Donegal hurling has changed big time since I first came here – we didn’t even have a physio then,” Durack says. “At that time we were just playing to fulfil games.
“The change is remarkable. Right down to the underage structure now we have the full backing of the County Board. Years ago, the hurling team was a burden.
“These guys are now working so hard and everything they do is so professional. They realise what is needed. It’s everything about their game, their gym programmes, their diet. It’s just gone to a whole new level.”
A year ago, Donegal were beaten by Fingal in the Division 3A final in Cavan. The defeat stung hard. Even after they won the Nicky Rackard Cup with a Croke Park win over Roscommon, Durack felt the pangs of regret prodding his head.
For 2014, winning promotion was their big aim. The Division 3A title was sealed with a final win over Roscommon, a side with whom they have become well acquainted of late, but the big prize arrived last Sunday.
“Promotion was our target the whole year,” Durack says. “We were very sore about the loss to Fingal last year. We knew that we were every bit as good as them. That defeat spurred us on to win the Nicky Rackard Cup. When we set out at the start of this year promotion was the aim.
“It was a great victory on Sunday – the biggest in the history of Donegal hurling, I’d go as far as to say.
“This is what a lot of these players have been striving for. Whatever about winning the Lory Meagher or the Nicky Rackard Cups, getting up to play a regular standard of higher level hurling is what these boys have wanted.
“Sunday was one of the best games we’ve played. Every man gave it 100 per cent. There was no way we were going to leave it behind us. This is huge for the game of hurling in Donegal. We need to make sure that we give ourselves a shot at surviving now in Division 2B.”
It is eight years now since Donegal’s hurlers made their first announcement on the big stage when they reached the final of the Nicky Rackard Cup in 2006, only to be well beaten by Derry.
While they were like tourists on a day trip that day, they’ve been back for more business since.
Having lost Lory Meagher finals to Tyrone in 2009 and Longford in 2010, they won the Lory Meagher Cup with a final win over Tyrone in 2011. Colm Breathnach led a Donegal hurling team up the Hogan Stand steps; Joe Boyle did likewise after a thrilling Nicky Rackard final win against Roscommon last summer.
“Getting to play in Croke Park was a dream,” Hannigan says.
“In 2006 when we got to Croke Park, it was just a case of: ‘Who thought this would ever happen?’ We knew Derry were stronger and we enjoyed the occasion – but we vowed to get and win a final there. That got the ball in motion for us.
“It wasn’t only a dream for the players, but we have a loyal band of supporters who follow us everywhere. It was a serious lift for them, too.”
Donegal did it the hard way on Sunday.
As the players headed for the tunnel at half-time, they lost Jamesie Donnelly, one of their battle-hardened performers, to a red card following an incident with Fingal’s Ross McGarry.
“It was a bit of handbags and the linesman made the wrong call,” Durack says.
“Jamesie was low in the dressing room, but he stood up and spoke. In many ways, the boys did it for him – the incident was very harsh on him.”
Donegal aren’t short on leaders and in the two goals of Hannigan they hit the big scores at the most crucial of intervals.
“Paddy is a great target man,” Durack says. “We should be getting more ball into him because he can do serious damage.”
Hannigan himself modestly deflects the credit.
“We have central figures all over,” he says.
“Joe Boyle is a fantastic leader. Danny Cullen is one of the outstanding hurlers Donegal has ever seen. It’s phenomenal watching him in action. On days like last Sunday it takes a team effort and by Jesus we produced it.”
When Durack came to Donegal, hurling development squads were but a distant dream. In time, they arrived and now products like Ciaran Matthewson, Christopher McDermott and Ronan McDermott have graduated from a development side managed by Durack a few years ago to become key figures in the senior ranks.
On the squad now, too, are young guns like Kevin Meehan, Colm Flood, Conor McVeigh, Brendan Tourish and Justin Browne are emerging as the next bright crop.
Another statistic that jumped out last Sunday was the scoring of Kevin Campbell, who bagged nine points.
“He was missed last year,” Durack says of the Setanta ace.
“It’s great to have him back. He didn’t get much hurling last year, but he’s a great addition. He’s a serious operator from dead balls, but in play he’s very crafty, has great speed and a good hurling brain. Himself and Danny Cullen on song are a joy to watch.”
Now they head for Division 2B and competition with the likes of Meath, Mayo, Armagh and Wicklow.
“The idea has been to get into the higher division, it’s just a pity we weren’t there this year,” Durack says. “Anyone in the Nicky Rackard always says that playing in Division 2B means that you’re sharper and faster.
“We played Mayo in a challenge game at the start of last year. There was confusion about the scoreline: We had it that we’d won it; the referee said we drew. Either way, we competed with them.
“I feel we could compete with the likes of Mayo and Armagh. We were playing catch-up for a long time, but we have caught up now.”
On Saturday-week, Donegal head for Roscommon to begin the defence of their Nicky Rackard title against the team they defeated in last year’s final.
Whatever course the summer takes, 2014 will be jotted down as a success. Finally, Donegal’s hurlers have made the leap.
It hasn’t happened by chance.
After their first League game of the year against Fermanagh in Fr Tierney Park, Ballyshannon, players and management had a sit-down meal in the clubhouse – a far cry from the takeaway days.
Hannigan lived both lives. He contemplated retirement two years ago, but opted to stay put. His surroundings are much different now to his formative years wielding the ash for Donegal.
“The attitude from top to bottom has changed and we’re all the better for it,” he says.
“This is the highlight, winning promotion. We’ve got a great set up now. It’s like ‘Club Donegal’ for us.”