John Campbell wears a contented grin as he sidles out a yellow door with Stephen McBrearty to meet the press pack.
He has packed away the blue Dublin jersey he swapped at full time, and is wearing a luminous Donegal training geansaí.
Man big, he leans back against a block wall in the service tunnel under the Cusack Stand, holding forth on the game that has just ended and the Big One in three weeks time.
He’s always been a very laid-back kind of fella. Not much fazes Big Campbell.
He laughed as he told us he’d only just found out that Donegal had never reached an All-Ireland minor final before.
He doesn’t much think about things like that. He’s 17 – won’t be 18 until nearly Christmas – only interested in playing football in the here and now, not worried about ancient history.
So, any nerves out there, John, we ask while poking dictaphones under his nose. You know, playing Dublin in Croker?
“You be very nervous,” he acknowledges. “But the nerves are a good thing and push you through.
“They make you feel good.”
Anthony McGrath has been working with the county minors as a sports psychologist and has, by common consent, done a great job.
Finding out that Big John actually has nerves in the first place is an achievement in itself.
He acknowledges the nerves, feeds off them and takes energy from them. It’s a neat mental trick.
There’s energy in the dressing room he’s just stepped out of. Elation at the win, excitement at what’s to come.
“It was great to be out here representing Buncrana and Inishowen on All-Ireland semi final day in Croke Park.
“I can’t wait for the final.
“There should be a great build up – I can’t wait for all the hype.
“There mightn’t be as many nerves the next time.
“There’s great excitement in the dressing room. Every man is buzzing, going off the walls.
“I only found out there now that we’d never been in an All-Ireland final before.
“To go out and win it would just be phenomenal.
“It would be a great day for all the clubs and under-age football in Donegal.
“It’d be nice to see more Donegal teams coming through and pushing on.
“The U17s won the McGuigan Cup [Ulster title, played as a blitz] last week without 6 or 7 of their main players [who were in Sunday’s minor squad], so there are good young players coming through.
“Young boys want to play and are choosing Gaelic over the soccer.”
Campbell’s 1-2 in a devastating four minute spell after being switched to full forward was the real turning point in the game.
Before it, Donegal had been all at sea. Shots were drifting wide. Tackles were missed. Pickups fumbled. Kickouts lost. Frees conceded.
Campbell’s goal steadied the ship.
Although he wore 14 on his back, he had started the game at right half forward. He’d been involved in the play too. Helping out in defence. Fielding one
mighty kickout. Sending in an inch perfect pass to Lorcan Connor.
When he moved to full forward, his impact was immediate.
“Tony [McClenaghan] played in that hanging ball perfectly, I just had to flick it,” he says modestly.
The Dublin defence was confused, and Campbell took full advantage.
“They didn’t know who was supposed to mark me, my markers were swapping after the goal. Caolan [McGonagle] caught the kickout, sent it in and I got on it.”
1-1 in less than a minute and there was more to come when he intercepted a short kickout aimed at a wing back.
“The keeper was predictable as hell. I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get another goal, but when he caught me I just checked back and was happy to get the point.”
A goal and two points in four minutes in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi final. Just like that.
Coláistí Inis Eoghain
Recalling the goal sent his mind back to a September day three years earlier and an Ulster Colleges game in Muff.
“The goal reminded me of playing in a Coláistí Inis Eoghain game in Muff against Saint Macartans of Monaghan, with me and Jigger [Darach O’Connor] playing inside.
“Jig played in the ball that time and I did the exact same flick.
That was quite the Inis Eoghain team. Caolan McGonagle played in goals. Danny Monagle and Tony McClenaghan were in defence. Ciaran Diver and Darach O’Connor up front with Campbell. All six were involved in Croke Park on Sunday.
Inis Eoghain drew with Macartans 3-5 to 2-8 in that Ranafast Cup game. Campbell hit 1-1 and Jigger scored 2-2.
They’ve moved onto bigger things now, but Ulster Colleges football was an important part of their development. Let them know they were as good as any other footballer in Ulster.
Final will be ‘best feeling ever’
For now, John Campbell is living in the moment. Getting ready for the biggest game of his career so far.
An All-Ireland final against the Kingdom of Kerry.
This Donegal team has never lost a competitive match. They have swept all before them in Ulster at U16 and U17, before winning this year’s Ulster minor league and claiming a first Ulster Minor Championship in 8 years.
Since then, Roscommon and Dublin have been beaten, and Declan Bonner’s team are just one win away from claiming the Tom Markham Cup.
“We have a winning mentality, and we’re happy to keep that,” the Scoil Mhuire Leaving Cert student says.
“Declan has always been there and pushing us on.
“He has a great team behind him, and a great team in front of him.
“Running out on Croke Park on 21 September is going to be the best feeling ever.
“I really can’t wait for it.”
And with that, he slips back into the tumult of the winning dressing room.
Content. Happy. Taking it all in his stride.
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