Six-thirty, St Eunan’s pitch, Letterkenny, Tuesday, May 28th May. The Donegal squad arrive at training having destroyed Tyrone only to find that Jim is very, very unhappy. If they thought pats on the back were due, they were soon disabused of the notion.
Instead, they were flogged. Too many mistakes on Sunday. Too many unforced errors. A quick huddle with Jim giving out f*** about Sunday, then the savagery began. As the intensity increased, the only thing that could be heard in that silence that comes from truly exhausting effort was Jim roaring. The 200m runs were particularly savage. Two groups, the first group going as soon as the second finished. On and on and on it went, with Jim in amongst them exhorting them to greater effort. All of them gasping for air, ending each segment on their hands and knees.
Yesterday is a figment of the imagination. In Jim’s world, there is no such thing as yesterday. In the Donegal camp, ‘yesterday’, for want of a better expression, is banned. Think of Tony McCoy, winning the Grand National, then up at 5am the next morning to ride six unknown horses at a little known venue. Or Carl Froch, running in the dawn’s early night the morning after winning a truly brutal world title fight. Now think of how one man can implant that desire into the hearts of a squad of 28 lads with different personalities, outlooks and ambitions.
It is an extraordinary project. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Jim has built a team whose purpose is to carry out his instructions. They are focussed, relentless and humble. They are unaffected by outside influences. They are - as my son Toirealach remarked on Sunday evening when I got home - ‘awesome’. On Sunday, they broke Tyrone physically and mentally. For 32 minutes of the second half, Tyrone didn’t score. They fell apart before our eyes. All that training and tactical work and tradition was swept aside. Tyrone players lost their self respect and pride. As one Ballinderry man tweeted on Sunday evening (and I quote) “they quet (sic) with 20 to go”.
The sending off, the indiscipline, the panic signalled an epic humiliation. Mickey Harte was powerless and panic switches followed. Sean Cavanagh went to full-forward where the only sure thing was that he would be swamped and irrelevant. Stephen O’Neill was moved out to the half forward line for reasons that will remain confidential. Players were taken off and brought on with no clear evidence in support other than that something needed to be done. Jim also broke Tyrone’s supporters. The country’s most fanatical Gaels were flooding out the exits long before the final whistle, a sight I can never recall seeing in the Harte era and one that gives me no pleasure.
There were many significant moments, but two in particular are vivid in my mind. At one stage Stephen O’Neill came in from an angle and hit Neil McGee like a train. McGee didn’t even see him coming. O’Neill bounced off him and ended up on the deck. McGee meanwhile was totally unruffled, calmly delivering the ball as the Tyrone man picked himself up and wondered what the f*** he was supposed to do next.
Under the expert tutelage of Jim, Paddy McBrearty has gone from bucking bronco to well schooled stallion. On Sunday, we saw for the first time what Jim has always seen. As he drove through the Tyrone defence with absolute conviction to set up the second goal, Martin Penrose launched himself at him to pull him down. Again, he simply bounced off the Donegal man. As the ball nestled in the Tyrone net, Penrose was on lying on his back over the end line.
‘Conviction’ is the watchword. No Donegal man avoids the hard yards. Always, they put themselves on the line. As it is in training, so it is in their games.
Jim said after the unforgettable extra time war against Kildare in 2011 that the Donegal boys were “truly living” during that time. His post match interview that day confirmed my view that he was special. Relegation followed by such an overwhelming first round victory shows how much he bucks the trend. The fact that his players always perform in big games is a testament to the excellence of his psychological work. Compare and contrast his key men with Tyrone’s.
The man has nerves of steel. His plot against Dublin in the notorious 2011 semi-final stunned the country. His reaction to the widespread revulsion his strategy caused was fascinating. He didn’t react at all. He has now entirely redefined the game. Funny how much criticism has been directed at me over the last two years because of my fascination and admiration. It only goes to show we are a nation of begrudging b******s. Not that it matters in the slightest to Jim...