THERE IS NO doubt that the Donegal football team have undergone a period of considerable transition in recent times.
And while this significant change has occasionally provoked criticism and didn’t always bring about the desired outcome for the side, it ultimately appears to have paid off, given that they are currently preparing for the All-Ireland final on Sunday.
And the team’s captain, Michael Murphy, acknowledges that the side’s footballers have come to serve as role models for the county’s people during this period of success.
“Well, I suppose it is not too long ago that people were looking at Donegal as, and I don’t like quoting this, as ‘party animals’ so obviously it was something that needed changing. Whatever perception people have of Donegal and Donegal footballers, it is not something that bothers us. The most important thing for us is the 30-man squad we have, the backroom team we have. For us, representing Donegal is a massive, massive honour.
“Jim [McGuinness] always refers to it before we go out onto a football pitch and we put on our Donegal jerseys, that we are not just representing ourselves but that we are representing the whole county and when we pull off the jersey, we are still representatives of Donegal. That’s very important for us, whether that be in Dublin at a pre or post match meal, whether that be speaking to media, we are conscious that we are representing Donegal and it is important that we uphold that tradition.”
Moreover, it could be argued that in discovering their offensive edge, the team has also upheld another Donegal tradition, one that meant their play was always easy on the eye.
They sacrificed that last year, with their retreat into an ultra-defensive shell drawing all kinds of heat in the aftermath of their semi-final defeat to Dublin.
But there was not nothing that was said that could hurt the players more than the result itself.
“It was a horrible feeling that day trudging off Croke Park,” recalls Murphy. “We felt we came quite close but at the end of the day semi-finals are like finals, they are there to be won and if you lose a semi-final, you are neither here nor there.
“It was a disappointing place to be. I suppose giving our all for the county was some sort of consolation, but we regrouped collectively after the county final and we were back at it, trying to come up with ways to tweak our game. There was no secret that we needed to develop our attacking side of the game and where we developed that to a certain extent this year, there are still improvements to be made,” says Murphy, who rubbishes the notion that there is such a thing as a ‘better’ way to win.
He consequently insists that the side do not derive extra satisfaction by winning with the supposedly more attractive brand of football that they have adopted this year.
“No, there is just a satisfaction that comes with winning games. Two years ago was the first Ulster championship game I won as a player. Winning games, no matter what way you win them, still gives you the same sense of satisfaction, whether you won them by 500 points or whether you win by two, it does not matter a bit.”
As far as their upcoming clash with Mayo is concerned, most bookies have Donegal as heavy favourites to win the game, but Murphy claims this fact will have little relevance come Sunday.
“The bookies are something that never really comes into it, I don’t know if that makes us favourites or underdogs because I really don’t understand the odds,” he says.
“When we are underdogs, it does not come into it. We have a set criteria to how we play, we assess ourselves off our own performance and the outside distractions like bookies – bookies are there to be toppled, odds are there to be toppled and records are there to be toppled.”
Murphy has nothing but compliments for manager Jim McGuinness, who most commentators regard as having an instrumental role in Donegal’s recent success.
In addition, he denies that there was any particular moment where he realised that McGuinness was taking the side places.
“There is no real key moment. I suppose after knowing Jim in the 2010 under-21 campaign, I knew Jim – his ideas, his philosophies, his commitment, his vision, he is a very impressive man. It was a great boost when I heard that he was coming in to take the senior job. Looking back, it is not something that we have really thought about or spoke about how far we have come, or how far we have not come.
“It is a kind of dangerous thing to be doing so close to an All-Ireland final, so I think for us to be looking back at things or to be pinpointing certain areas, it would be wrong to do that. If we ever do, it we might do it in the month of November and December, but I don’t think this is the time to be doing it. It is also known that the dedication, the focus, the intellect of Jim and Rory, and the whole backroom team, they provide us with the framework to go out and play to the best of our ability.
“That’s what they give us as footballers, they give us every opportunity to compete in arenas like Croke Park, so it is important for us not to let them down and not let the whole county down.”