Last month, and for the fifth time this decade, Michael Murphy floated up the steps of the Gerry Arthurs Stand to be handed the Anglo-Celt Cup.
In nine years, Donegal have doubled their total number of Ulster SFC titles. This truly is the golden age of Donegal football, but then this was only the second time they had ever successfully defended their provincial honour.
Looking out at the mass of yellow and green, that enraptured swell Murphy felt in his breast was as powerful as it was when he first took in that stunning vista of his people as a 21-year-old back in 2011.
“Honestly, the feeling straight after the Ulster final was every bit the same as the very first one. You were still getting that same excitement because coming up through the ranks and always as a group of players we would have put a huge emphasis on the prize of the Ulster Championship.
“That’s largely down to us not having won it for so long so when we have won it it’s felt as important as the last one. The difference this time around was when I got the news afterwards. Our club man had passed away. There had been an accident.”
Ninety minutes before throw-in in St Tiernach’s Park, Glenswilly’s Manus Kelly and Donal Barrett crashed midway through the Fanad stage on the final day of the Donegal International Rally close to Baile na Brocar. By the time Donegal had beaten Cavan, word had filtered to Clones that Kelly had passed away.
A close friend of Murphy’s and former Donegal midfielder Neil Gallagher, father-of-five Kelly, who had only been voted in as a Fianna Fáil county councillor weeks previous, had claimed victory in the rally the three previous years. It wasn’t until 40 minutes after the final whistle that the tragic news was broken to Murphy by his father Michael Senior.
Dad brought me into a room just off the dressing room and told me. The overriding feeling was just disbelief and an overwhelming sense of guilt then for celebrating for those 40 minutes and people out on the field who you were celebrating with knew the news and you didn’t know it.
“I rang Neil Gallagher on the way home and we were in disbelief. He was up at the game. We got back on the road to Donegal and there wasn’t going to be much happening. You’d usually stop in Pettigo and then a huge homecoming in Donegal town. Once you got closer to home, it really kicked in. I spoke to my mum and dad and my overriding feeling then was to head home, so I did that night.”
The days that followed were naturally difficult ones for the community of Glenswilly as well as the rallying fraternity. Despite his success, Kelly’s humility is what stood out for Murphy.
“We were massively proud of him. Manus was Manus to us. He was a club man, he was a team-mate, and he was a coach of the underage teams. He had brothers on the senior team along with us and he had kids on the underage team so when he was down at the club, which was every other night, he was Manus.
“But over the week with the wake and the funeral it really became apparent to us in Glenswilly that Manus was more than just Manus. We obviously knew the importance of what he had done in rallying nationally, or winning the Donegal Rally so many times, and how well he was known in sport, work and political circles. But it just became apparent to us that he was more than what he was to us locally.
"Ah, he was just a really good character with a warm personality. A footballing man, a family man. It was difficult to see his family in such a tough way and then the people in the area so affected by it too.”
Given his sporting acumen, Kelly was somebody Murphy turned to as well.
“He’d be a great man to text you before and after games and they wouldn’t be just ‘good luck’; there’d be always something with it. It wouldn’t be as simple as a ‘well done’ either; he’d go into detail about it.
“I remember having chats with him because I was curious about the rallying. I’d have spoken to Donal Barrett, his co-driver, and Donal was the sponsor of ourselves in Donegal (MCR Group) and very good to us. Donagh (Kelly, KN Group CEO) I’d have spoken to a lot about it too and I wanted to know about performance and how they prepared and got themselves right psychologically and physically.
“Manus always put a lot of work into that, and I picked his brain on it. He would have done a lot of work with psychologists in terms of visualising roads and getting his head in a good space and he put a big focus on his diet too. You look at a rally driver sitting inside a car and you’d think that physically or mentally you wouldn’t need to be too much in tune, but you have to be and Manus was on top of it.”
It would be trite to suggest Murphy wants to lead Donegal to bigger things in Kelly’s honour — that’s not in his make-up — but he intends taking the advice of his pal.
“Manus would have been one of the first to say ‘just go and do it’. He wouldn’t have been hugely sentimental and he’d just want us to get on with it and push on with it. We’ve done that already, we had an U14 Northern Board final last week and Manus’ son (Mandy) was captain and we won.
“Aye, it was lovely to just get back into football and the whole area to come together rather than around the sadness of a wake or a funeral. It gave us a different focus as to how to remember him.”
Tomorrow’s game in Ballybofey will be Murphy’s 52nd as Donegal senior captain, his 65th in total. Handed to him by Jim McGuinness having only turned 21, the title has become synonymous with him.
It identifies him, he knows and he accepts it. It’s something he wears and, like a wedding ring, he’s become used to it, but it’s a consideration in so much of what he does from his sports shop in Letterkenny to his social life.
“Ah, definitely. I could say no to that question but the answer is ‘definitely’. You’re given a captaincy of the Donegal team, your county team, and it’s something you’re entrusted with. You’re probably given it for a reason. If they didn’t want to entrust you with it, they wouldn’t give it to you so you have to carry it.
“Within the dressing room, that’s the most important place to have it because if you don’t have it there, there’s no point in having it anywhere else, really.
“But I’m very fortunate with the younger group there now, Hugh McFadden, Ryan McHugh, Eoghan Bán Gallagher, along with the older group of Frank (McGlynn) and Neil (McGee), Paddy McGrath and Patrick McBrearty that there are loads of people who are leaders.
I’m sure the responsibility would be there without the captaincy, but with it you feel it even more so. It’s not that you have to be careful but we were those kids and young adults who would have met Donegal players on the streets or summer camps and you have to be yourself first and foremost but inspire the younger generation as best you can.
Regarded by Oisín McConville as a player “absolutely adored” by his team-mates, Murphy smiles at the former Armagh star’s claim that he tends to take a back seat when Donegal are in the ascendancy so that other players can shine. McConville cited an example close to the end of the Ulster final when Murphy held off two Cavan players so McFadden could catch a kickout unchallenged.
“I wish it was that easy. I honestly don’t think it’s that easy. In fairness to the group and to Hugh and Jason (McGee) in the middle of the field, they’ve been really good. They’ve worked hard on their games and they bring both facets to it, the defensive work and going forward.
“That’s off their own back, that’s not down to me, it’s not down to Declan (Bonner), Stephen (Rochford), Karl (Lacey) or anybody else that is there. They’ve come through some difficult times as young players coming into a group that have had some good times, but you look at the likes of Jamie (Brennan), Eoghan Bán, Ryan to an extent, Ciarán Thompson… they’ve come through a couple of tough years of transition from an older to a younger team.
“We’ve taken a couple of heavy beatings in Ulster and the qualifiers and were obviously relegated to Division 2. I’m just delighted for them that they’ve come through that and shown the class they have because it would have been easy for them to shy away from the challenge and they just kept fronting up and through that they’ve got some good days and another Ulster medal in their back pocket.
“With the way the team is at the moment, the atmosphere is really good and the whole group are enjoying their football. The feeling I get within the group is they’re obviously hungry for winning and just hungry for football.”
Literally translated, that means Donegal have their sights set on an All-Ireland semi-final after Tyrone broke their proud 21-game unbeaten record to steal ahead of them into last year’s last-four.
They have arrived into the Super 8s the same way as 2018, but with some important differences, namely Patrick McBrearty, Murphy highlights.
Patrick’s loss through injury definitely had a bearing on our performance. He is such a key part of the team and he was playing some unbelievable football, the football of his life through the National League and the early part of the Championship. He was irreplaceable, so in terms of injury and players available we’re in a better place, number one.
“As we sit here now, the target is to go one better than last year so that means trying to get out of the Super 8 group. That’s really what’s stuck in our head at the moment. There’s a lot of talk going around the country but for us as a group there’s a hell of a lot more maturity among the younger players and the older players are taking belief from them.”
Murphy alludes to Donegal being spoken about as Dublin’s closest challengers. It’s not that the perception doesn’t sit easy with him but he can’t say that it’s accurate.
“At the start of the year, we were beaten by Tipperary when we had been classed as favourites to get out of Division 2. But our campaign was very rocky and after the Tipperary game there were doubts and we were well down the pecking order of Ulster as well as anything outside of it.
“It’s fickle how things change with performances so we’re clued-in enough to know that one or two of our victories so far could have gone either way. We got a certain amount of plaudits for the win over Tyrone, but on another day a goal doesn’t go in or Tyrone had that game back to three points and flashed the ball over the crossbar and all of a sudden that could be a draw, replay or a Tyrone win.
“You tend to realise as a group that we’re never as bad as we have been made out to be and with some of the plaudits we’re receiving now are we as good as that? You just don’t know. We need to answer that ourselves and get out of our Super 8s group, number one, and prove that we’re better than last year.”