ON SATURDAY evening, I rose to my feet in the Hogan Stand when the ball left Kevin Cassidy’s foot and didn’t sit down again.
After the last of the Donegal players had made their way down the tunnel, I became aware of my 11-year-old son Rory tugging my arm. “Daddy, let’s go, you’ve been clapping for 15 minutes.” Sure enough, my hands were sore. When I came out of my trance I was surrounded by Donegal folk. “We have the heart Joe,” shouted a man in his 50s. “Donegal men have the heart” he repeated, beating his chest so hard that the people around him were trying not to laugh. “I know” I said to him. We have the heart,” he roared again and again. ‘Heart and a lot more besides’ I would have said to him had he been in a mood for conversation. Instead, he eventually went off down the exit at Section 331 still roaring and thumping his own heart. “Why are so many Donegal people bald daddy?” said Rory as we walked to the car.
I posed the question in this column several weeks ago, “Who will beat Donegal?” Tyrone didn’t. Derry were never going to. Kildare couldn’t in spite of throwing everything they had learned over four years at it. Jim McGuinness, just 10 months into his county debut, has trumped them all. It has already been a monumental piece of work. It is clear that he has worked imaginatively on every aspect of the team, from personal fitness, behaviour and psychology to strategy, tactics and good practice on the field. The surprise is that he has been able to make it work so well, so quickly. Or maybe not.
Jim has grafted for everything he has. His qualifications include a degree in Sports Science and a Masters in psychology. Perhaps the great personal tragedy that befell him as a happy go lucky young man has been the driving force behind his extraordinary crusade. Nothing has been left to chance with this team. On top of all the nuts and bolts work that has been done, he clearly also understands his players, treating them with respect and friendship. In the end though, his triumph has been in creating an ingenious game plan that is virtually impossible to defeat. As the players’ confidence has grown and they have fully embraced Jim’s approach, their belief and spirit have soared. When Tyrone looked to some as though they were playing them off the park in the first half in Ulster (‘a masterclass’ Jim described it as, which in my view was an exaggeration, since Tyrone could not penetrate Donegal’s inner cordon at all), the best they could manage was a five point lead. That has perhaps been the defining moment for the group. Jim always believed it, they didn’t until they saw it for themselves. Having looked uncertain and worried for 25 minutes, Donegal suddenly put their backs into it they way they had been taught to. Tyrone are kidding themselves if they think they should have won it. After Kevin Cassidy’s point, no one in the ground thought Tyrone were doing anything other than hanging in. Donegal came from five behind. Twice they scored goals to pull away. There are always ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, but the three point win was absolutely merited.
Colm O’Rourke said on RTE on sunday that Donegal beat Kildare because they renounced the negative game plan of the first half and went on the attack. This is hokum analysis, nothing more than an emotional response to what unfolded and a wish to see things as he would like them to be, not as they are. Donegal’s strategy remained constant, based on overwhelming defensive work coupled with counter-attacking at speed, sniping scores mainly through the brilliance of Michael Murphy and the ruthless punishing of any mistakes in the Kildare defence. The only differences between the first half and the rest were that Michael Murphy wasn’t playing (until the 28th minute) and the game inevitably became more tense as it moved towards the final whistle(s).
If Mark McHugh had scored the goal he ought to have in the 26th minute, Colm would have had no complaints about Donegal’s attacking play.
Kieran McGeeney complained without complaining afterwards but in truth there was nothing to complain about. Reuters reported yesterday that elderly survivors of Japan’s recent tsunami are being comforted by a small, white robotic seal called “Paro”. The manufacturer sent two of the robots to a home where displaced elders are now living. The robots have had an immediate impact on their well-being. 85 year old Satsuko Yatsuzaka told reporters “When I hug Paro for half an hour, it doesn’t matter about the typhoon anymore. I feel safe and happy.” Perhaps they could make a cuddly talking referee for Kieran which repeats soothing philosophical phrases, for example “The referee didn’t see Seamus Darby’s push and look how it ended up for those Kerry men.” Micko, it might be recalled, was asked about that missed push afterwards and waved it away with the words “There were lots of fouls and pushes out there today by both teams. I wouldn’t bother about that at all.”
Kildare lost for precisely the same reason they have lost over the last four years. They are not good enough. They could never beat the Dubs in Leinster. They couldn’t beat Tyrone. They couldn’t beat Down. They never played Kerry or Cork. They don’t have a Michael Murphy or a Kevin Cassidy or a Karl Lacey or a Mark McHugh. They don’t have footballers like Rory Kavanagh or subs like Christy Toye or ‘Brick’ Molloy.
There are very few universal truths but here are two of them: 1 - The best team always wins the replay. 1 -The best team always wins extra time.
Kildare were three up with eight minutes to go and Donegal managed to avoid Kildare’s full-on rugby tackles to kick four brilliant points.
No, nothing can dent Donegal’s victory. The force is with them. And so am I.