Hurler on the Ditch

An absolute privilege to be in Croker

Jim as Che IITHERE was a moment meandering down the road from Dublin on Sunday night when Hurler realised that it wouldn’t take much to squeeze out a tear. The enormity of what had earlier come to pass at Croke Park was beginning to seep in. Hurler saw Donegal play in the Ulster Senior Football championship for the first time in the summer of 1977 and has religiously followed the fortunes of the county ever since but Sunday last – August 31, 2014 – was the best 70 minutes of football Hurler has ever seen from a Donegal team, bar none.
It was an absolute privilege to be alive to witness it. Indeed, Hurler has no doubt that if blessed with the good fortune to see old age, there will be folk avoiding me like the plague as I beckon them over to regale them one more time about the day in the high summer of 2014 when Hurler was there in person to witness one of the truly great and most gratifying sporting performances of all time.

Silencing the critics
Sunday’s win was about much more than merely securing passage to an All-Ireland final. This victory ticked boxes on so many levels. Regular readers of this column (hope the three of you keep buying the paper!) will know that Hurler has been fixated in recent months with the disrespect slung in Donegal’s direction. In the run up to the game, Donegal were casually written off like an oul done car with not a hope in hell of getting through the NCT. Scornful national pundit after pundit queued up to inform us why and how Donegal would wither when faced down by the “greatest football side in a generation”. Those who dismissed the Donegal vehicle chose not to hear the engine purring like a panther after our outings against Monaghan and Armagh.

Donegal supporters, this column among them, openly acknowledged that it was going to require an immense performance in order for Jim McGuinness’ men to overcome the Dubs. That was a given. Hurler, for example, wrote here last week that “the McGees, McGlynn, Lacey, McGrath & Co will need to earn their All-Star nominations on Sunday for us to win”.
What was absolutely exasperating however was the fact that national journalists – supposedly well-informed folk who spend their life covering Gaelic games – utterly dismissed the proven ability of superb footballers to again step up to the plate as they have done time and again under the knowing gaze of Jim McGuinness.

Sunday’s utter demolition of the Dubs therefore was all about vindication for Jim and his players and boy, they delivered it in spades! Not alone did they brazenly enter the Dubs’ premises, they ransacked it and – not content with removing Sam from the mantlepiece – soiled the good carpet on the way out. One of the papers described it as ‘a raid for the ages’. And it was. But the truth remains that any team who have lorded Ulster three years out of four, not to mention owning Sam just two summers ago, should never have been labelled as the biggest underdogs for 20 years going into an All-Ireland semi-final. Thirteen wins out of 14 games played in Ulster over four summers underlines the supidity of that.

Already, as predicted here a ween of weeks ago, Donegal’s win has been dubbed as the biggest upset in Gaelic football since Offaly’s Seamus Darby rattled the onion bag in September 1982 to end Kerry’s dream of a much anticipated march to an historic five All-Ireland titles in a row. For sure Donegal’s surge back to the top of the charts is remarkable because of the lowly spot we found ourselves in last summer, but the widespread amazement that a team who were crowned All-Ireland champions less than two years ago could overcome the over-hyped Dubs has more to do with football snobbery and ignorance than an out-of-the-blue Seamus Darby-type upset. That, and the fact that benchmarking Dublin’s progress against inferior Leinster opposition is about as useless as a trap door on a lifeboat.

Dublin’s cheerleaders in the national media do them a disservice by hyping them out of all proportions. They are, without a shadow of a doubt, a tremendous Gaelic football team but folk who have been following Donegal all their life knew too – even before a ball was kicked on Sunday – that this Donegal team are also a tremendous outfit. The signs were there from mid-July when they comfortably recaptured the Anglo-Celt from Monaghan and put the ghosts of 2013 to rest.

Ambush
It all added up to providing the peerless Jim McGuinness with an opportunity to spring an ambush Che Guevara himself would have been proud of. The deathly silence from Hill 16 told its own story as Dublin players, who had racked up massive scores against the powerhouses of Laois, Wexford and Meath, were forced to shoot under the kind of pressure normally encountered by deep-sea divers.

Jim Gavin gambled on the belief that no matter what Donegal scored his Dubs would outgun them at the other end. Instead, Donegal’s stunning counter-attacking game exposed the feet of clay some of us suspected the Dubs had all along. Donegal opened up gaps in the Dublin defence wider than the M50 and scored at will. In short, no team in the land could have lived with Donegal on Sunday.

Any Yanks still lingering in Croke Park from the previous day’s American football extravaganza would no doubt have described it as an ‘awesome’ performance. And it was. It was an absolute privilege to be in Croke Park to witness it.

The revolution resumes
Hurler was devastated for Jim McGuinness and Donegal after last summer’s quarter-final when circumstances beyond their control dictated that they were unable to defend themselves and their cherished title against a rampant Mayo. McGuinness and the boys had given far, far too much to Donegal for their journey to end on such a low note. That they have managed to recover in such defiant and commanding fashion from a defeat that would have set most teams back years, is testament to their greatness. They are indeed a team for the ages.

Indeed, if they beat Kerry three weeks from now it is Donegal, not Dublin, who will be hailed as the “greatest football side in a generation”. When Jim McGuinness first turned water into wine in 2011 and then delivered Sam in 2012, there were those who prayed it was the opening shots of a Gaelic football revolution. Turns out it was – viva la revolution!

Hurler was slow to wander out of Croker last Sunday, well aware that this was a day worth drinking in to the very dregs. The noise generated by estatic Donegal supporters inside must have been the kind of din John, Paul, George and Ringo experienced in Shea Stadium in 1965. The sheer joy on Donegal faces was something to behold – every face had a smile wider than the Swilly. The sheer number of Inishowen folk involved in both the minor and senior squads on Sunday made it all the more illustrious. Hats off to each and every one of them – including Jim’s right hand man, the legend that is Paul McGonigle. All that can be said to the boys from Inishowen is thanks for providing one of the landmark days of our lives.

The words of none other than that renowned GAA man, Winston Churchill spring to mind – never was so much owed by so many to so few.
And we haven’t even won the Big Cup yet!

Not alone did Donegal brazenly enter the Dubs’ premises, they ransacked it and – not content with removing Sam from the mantlepiece – soiled the good carpet on the way out!

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