TOMMY MARTIN: In Donegal, we know all about darkness before the dawn

A young Donegal supporter races up to the giant landmark tree in O'Donnell Park, Letterkenny GAC

Abandon hope all ye who enter here. This is the football championship. Thirty-two counties chase a ball around for four months and at the end, the Dubs always win.

Why go through with it at all?

A small handover ceremony could be arranged. Maybe in a hotel conference room. Just a few GAA dignitaries, Stephen Cluxton and Sam Maguire. Some handshakes, photographs, refreshments served. Tasteful.

It would save us all the bother. The World Cup will keep us distracted and there’s some bits in the garden that need doing. This way really is best for all concerned, don’t you think?

No? Fine. Can’t say I didn’t warn you… When it comes to the football championship, it’s not the hope that kills you. That’s usually Dublin.

Stephen Cluxton
Stephen Cluxton

No, the hope may well be the only thing you have.

You see, this is the best of times, right now. The air is ripe with anticipation, the cherry blossoms are in bloom and anything seems possible. And by anything, I obviously mean beating Cavan in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship.

In Donegal, we cherish this exquisite moment of unsullied optimism more than most. Not that we fancy our chances in the big picture that much.

The league may well be the league, and it wasn’t without its bright spots, but relegation is never a good look heading into a championship.

And we’ve become accepting of Donegal’s drift away from the top tier of All-Ireland contenders in recent years.

At first it was like being ostracised from the cool gang in school. It started with a few bitchy comments about handpassing then suddenly we were stuck with the freaks and geeks in Division Two.

But that’s okay. Work on cloning Michael Murphy is progressing well, so we’ll be back soon, though the Glenswilly Cyborg project may not be ready for the Super 8s.

Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy

No, like most counties, we know that, more than likely, there will come a crushing midsummer reckoning and all this sweet early promise will end up, like the freshly cut grass people love to smell at this time of year, in a stinking pile of composted mulch.

But never again will we give up hope.

Remember 2010? Matt Cardle was riding high in the charts and Cork were All-Ireland football champions. An era of domination lay in store for both.

Meanwhile, Donegal had hit rock bottom. I watched the infamous first round qualifier defeat to Armagh in a holiday home in Ballybunion. It was the day after my brother-in-law’s wedding and there was a barbecue lit and beer being drunk. No-one shared my interest in the grim ritual being played out in Crossmaglen, where Donegal as a team — as a people! — were being humiliated. Again.

So, with the sound of uncaring laughter drifting in from outside, I watched it alone on a small 14-inch television, the picture fuzzy, but clear enough to make out Armagh acting as the sadistic kid, pulling the wings off a terrified, trapped insect. And I had the thought: I may well never see Donegal win the All-Ireland again in my lifetime.

It seemed impossible. The players, the mentality, the will, none of it was there. And the others — Cork, Kerry, Dublin — they seemed so much stronger, so much more serious. It was, well, hopeless.

And we all know how that turned out.

Nowthere is one problem. In a situation like that, you’re probably going to need a messiah.

Sports fans are always on the lookout for a messiah. It’s something to do with the quasi-religious nature of team sport and the enduring resonance of the biblical message, that we believe some guy in sandals is going to come and lead us out of this misery. It’s why soccer fans get pissed off when their team appoints Big Sam as manager. Nobody thinks the messiah looks like Big Sam.

Jim McGuinness was Donegal’s messiah. Actually, Jim McGuinness was the Messiah.

Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness

I’m not joking: He once had long hair and a beard; he performed miracles (eh, hello, keeping the Donegal lads off the beer?); and he ascended into Paradise (geddit, Celtic Park, Paradise? Never mind).

Where Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek’, Jim said ‘turn and run back into your own half!’.

Jesus had Judas Iscariot, Jim had Kevin Cassidy.

Jesus healed the sick and made the blind see, Jim got Eamon McGee back playing for the county.

Unfortunately, messiahs don’t come around too often. The ancient Judeans spent 2,000 years awaiting deliverance, which is nearly as long Mayo. If you’re from Mayo you have genuflected at the feet of many false gods, bronzed idols like John Maughan and mystical maharishi like James Horan, yet you still keep the faith.

The point is that no matter how barren the landscape looks, there are always green shoots. The night is always darkest before the dawn.

And maybe even when your diamonds are polished up the Dublins and Kerrys will still be that bit brighter and more brilliant, but at least, like the Carlows and Tipperarys of recent years, they’ll have had a chance to shine.

Just over a year after my Ballybunion misery, I sat in the Hogan Stand as Donegal shocked the GAA world in an All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. Boos rang out from Hill 16 at the gall of it, the sheer spectacular impertinence of Donegal’s ultra-defensive gameplan, at the refusal to present themselves to the slaughter for the benefit of the metropolitan hordes.

On the sideline, the man with the plan stared on impervious, and a terrible beauty was born.

It turned out Donegal did have the mentality, and the will and that day they showed they were serious. A year later they were All-Ireland champions.

And now? Despite the relegation there is not the same sense of gloom as in 2010. Cavan moved in the other direction in the league but there’s an understanding of transition, young players, new manager, different style. Evolution.

There’s also the understanding that the forces that make it so hard to compete are becoming more powerful. The Super 8s will favour the strong counties; the challenges of geography make preparations ever more difficult; the financial resources to manage it all are becoming too big a stretch for all but a very few.

In the week Dublin renewed their mega-money sponsorship deal with the insurance giant AIG, who once almost brought down the US economy with their mismanagement and corruption, it was a reminder that some are simply too big to fail.

But there is always hope, never sweeter and fuller than right now. Don’t abandon it.

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