There have been 124 All-Ireland football champions proclaimed over the course of three different centuries but Paddy McBrearty believes Donegal’s would rank as the greatest of them all were they to claim Sam Maguire this year.
That’s a bold assertion and one that could generate a full winter of bar stool bickering, but it is easy see why the youngster would be prepared to make such a statement given the route laid out before Jim McGuinness’ squad.
For the second year in succession, they have thumbed their noses at history books which lay bare the difficulties involved for teams asked to start their summers at the Ulster Championship’s preliminary stage.
Cavan, Derry, Tyrone and Down were all dealt with and then Kerry, too. Whatever happens tomorrow, their list of victims in 2012 will include the two teams that dominated the ’00s and the 2010 All-Ireland finalists.
Should Cork – the 2010 champions – be bettered this weekend, the expectation is that the Ulster side would meet with the Munster champions’ successors in September. Their style may divide opinion but who would begrudge them the ultimate honour if they pulled that off? Tyrone might have played more times in 2005, but only because Mickey Harte’s side drew twice and lost to Armagh in the Ulster final. Should Donegal go all the way, it would be a flawless campaign impervious to brickbats.
“To be the best you have to beat the best, as the motto goes, and we are taking it one game at a time,” says the 19-year-old.
“I know if we could beat Cork and have a four-week run to an All-Ireland final it would be dreamland stuff.”
If anyone is entitled to believe it could happen it is McBrearty. He won just one game in three years playing minor for his county but already has two senior provincial medals stashed away after little over a year on the panel.
Timing, as they say, is everything.
“The older boys probably hate me, to be honest,” he laughs, “but I’m not taking it for granted at all. I’m very honoured to be where I am. My own clubman, Michael Hegarty, was there for eleven or 12 years and he won one Ulster medal.”
That is McBrearty in a nutshell: grounded but willing to dream.
It can’t be easy to find that balance. Stories of his talent emerged from Kilcar long before he did and it must be strange for a teenager to hear his name in the second verse of songs dedicated to the county footballers and posted on Facebook.
McGuinness and selector Rory Gallagher have provided guiding hands. Like the entire squad, McBrearty has been given media training but Gallagher still made a point of asking journalists to leave out any curve balls as he spoke at last week’s press night.
He needn’t have worried. McBrearty is as mature off the pitch as on it and, though he was an engaging interviewee, he will continue to heed McGuinness’ motto that it is better to read about yourself in Monday’s paper rather than Saturday’s.
“Myself, I come from an ordinary traditional family and if my feet were to leave the ground I’d be bate by my father,” says McBrearty who received his Leaving Certificate results last Thursday and plans to be a teacher.
“He has always told me to keep my feet on the ground, to work hard and the football will take care of itself. That’s been drilled into me from a young age and it has helped me. We will all keep our feet on the ground, hopefully get over Cork and look forward to an All-Ireland final.”
Memories of ’92 rekindled
While Patrick McBrearty was yet to be born and Michael Murphy had just turned four, Colm McFadden is the only one of Donegal’s full-forward line who can remember their solitary All-Ireland title back in 1992.
McFadden, now 29, recalled how he chased over a field to watch Donegal defeat Dublin 0-18 to 0-14 that famous day at his cousin Danny Toye’s house in Creeslough.
“We were straight out afterwards wearing the jersey and kicking ball, pretending to be the Donegal players,” he recalls. “It was innocent.
Twelve months later we were out in the same field being the Derry players, who had won Sam Maguire in 1993. It shows the influence football can have.”
McFadden is now a part of the contemporaries, who are trying to become only the second Donegal side to make it as far as an All-Ireland final.
“You can see it in the people all over Donegal,” McFadden says. “It lifts them. People come up and talk to you.
McFadden is now a maths teacher at St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny, where a colleague of his, since retired, told him just how much the county’s footballers have lifted the spirits.
“Eddie Harvey said to me last year when he was in the leisure centre, he’d pop into the jacuzzi and everyone would be talking doom and gloom and the recession,” McFadden says. “Last summer and this year too, he said he could go in there and all anyone would talk about was football. It’s great to hear.”
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