“They did not talk much. They were happy with the inordinate happiness that comes of exhaustion and achievement and with which nothing else in life - no joy of either the body or the mind - is even able to be compared.”
George Orwell’s words, written in his 1934 classic ‘Burmese Days’, sum up the feeling we shared in the dressing room after we had won the All-Ireland in 1993. It is a sort of ecstasy that is hard to explain. There was no cheering or bouncing about or spraying water over each other. Lads just showered and got changed quietly, letting it all sink in. Even Fergal McCusker was calm. It was quiet, but it was ecstasy all the same. The funny thing about it though was how quickly that feeling evaporated. In the days afterwards, I was surprised and disappointed to find that it was an anti-climax. The girls, the carousing, the singing soon lost it’s charm. Having reached the summit, I had discovered that the only thing for it was to try to climb back again. Within a few days, I was back standing at my favourite spot in O’Cahan Park, near the corner flag on the right, popping balls over the bar as my younger brother Proinsias fetched them back. After about 15 minutes, he shouted over to me, “Our boy, I thought after Sunday we wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”
“So did I, our boy, so did I.”
It is all ahead of the Donegal men. “Can Donegal win the All-Ireland?” is a question that appeared this week on the main GAA conversation board. The answer is “Yes”. When I first saw them in a league game against Derry in Celtic Park last year, I realised they were going to break the mould and wrote a piece predicting their inevitable rise. Ulster final day came around and I travelled in the absolute certainty that we would lose. They made heavy weather of Kildare, but I still felt they would be too much for the Dubs and tipped them to make the final. In hindsight, seven months just wasn’t enough time for the Jose Mourinho of Gaelic football to take them all the way. His meticulous plotting for the All-Ireland resumed immediately, probably as the Donegal coach was leaving the bowels of the Hogan Stand.
Every aspect of the project has been put under the microscope. Other management teams have of course been doing this for years, but not with the genius of Donegal’s. The individual fitness levels are remarkable. This can be seen most vividly in the transformation of Mark McHugh’s physique. Against Dublin last year, he was knocked about. They won’t be knocking him about this year. The work required by Jim is - from the perspective of an outsider - impossible. Yet the boys wholeheartedly subscribe to it, which testifies to the magnetism and charisma of the manager. At the Glenswilly medal presentation in January, Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher were sipping spring water, as their team mates and neighbours went wild.
“No drink lads?” I said.
“Naw Joe,” said Michael, “Seven o’clock in the morning comes early.”
When I commented that these morning gym sessions must be hellish, he said “Would you believe it, I really look forward to them. There’s a great camaraderie. I wouldn’t be without it.”
Big Neil, a man who once loved his pint with a deep and reverential love, nodded in agreement. I suggested to Michael in the course of the discussion that he ought to work on his left foot, since it would make him virtually impossible to mark and allow him to kick a critical score or two in the biggest games. He smiled sheepishly. “Ah we’re already working on that one Joe. Rory Gallagher’s kicking with me a couple of times a week.” No need for me to offer our Proinsias’ services so...
There are two fallacies about Donegal. The first is that disliking their style is incompatible with lauding its brilliance. The second is that somehow they are more attack minded now. They are not at all. The cornerstone of their game plan was and is their fearsome, ingenious group defence. Their turning over of the ball and counter-attacking has improved with practice but this has again always been an integral part of the plan. Against the better teams (and by that I mean the teams who are well organised along modern lines), Donegal will grind to low score wins. The recent Tyrone game is a good example. Against weaker teams, for example Derry, Down and Cavan, they will win comfortably, since by half-time they will have broken them mentally and their systematic approach will do the rest.
It is a phalanx now. Michael Murphy is only a cog. The doubts that surfaced against Dublin last year are gone. Their togetherness - as illustrated to stunning effect in the fact that the savage expulsion of Kevin Cassidy didn’t bring forth so much as a whisper of discontent from the squad - is complete. Their procession through Ulster has been awesome. The thing is, everyone knew it would be so. I said it to Michael and Neilly in Glenswilly in January and mocked them when they started reciting the first chapter of the McGuinness propaganda manual: “Cavan are a good young team Joe. Derry will be looking for revenge. Tyrone are still the best team in Ulster and no team has ever won twice from the preliminary blah blah blah blah.” They laughed, but they stuck to the script.
In a way, Orwell’s words sum up Jim’s philosophy. Donegal are ready to experience that fleeting ecstasy he spoke of. For them, the exhaustion is the easy bit.