They say that familiarity breeds contempt but with Donegal in a 10th Ulster final in just 12 years, the interest levels in the north-west are as high as they’ve ever been.
Before Jim McGuinness took over as senior team manager ahead of the 2011 season, Donegal had only ever won five Ulster titles - the first of which came as recently as 1972 - and one All-Ireland, which came in 1992.
Between 2011 and McGuinness’s first Ulster - which came against Derry - and 2019 they matched that feat with Michael Murphy this Sunday aiming to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup for the sixth time. With former Donegal manager Rory Gallagher in charge of a resurgent Derry, there’s memories of the early nineties when the meetings of Donegal and Derry sometimes even defined the championship as a whole.
In the 1992 Ulster final, 14-man Donegal came through against a Derry side who had blazed their way to National League success, to lay the foundation stones for capturing Sam Maguire. However, a year later, in a quagmire, Derry won 0-8 to 0-6 and took both Ulster and All-Ireland glory.
“There were mammoth battles,” Donegal manager Declan Bonner, who featured in both, said. “At that time both teams were at the top table. We won the All-Ireland and they went on to do it the year after. There was always a real edge in the league, McKenna Cup, you name it.” Only three Donegal managers ever - Brian McEniff, McGuinness and Bonner - have ever won the Anglo-Celt with their native county. Bonner is in his second term as manager and guided Donegal to the 2018 and 2019 successes, after his first term ended trophyless having lost out to an injury time Joe Brolly goal in the 1998 decider.
“It still rankles,” Bonner said last week. “Mr Brolly. We led up till almost the 70th minute and then the late goal. Listen, no doubt it was a bitter pill to swallow. It took almost 20 years to put it right.” Donegal county board chairman Mick McGrath stressed there is huge interest in the final, which is expected to sell out St Tiernach’s Park in Clones on Sunday. Donegal, McGrath says, have already sold 15,000 tickets within the county.
“It is a record for an Ulster final,” he said. “I have seen us heading up the road before with maybe 10,000 or 11,000 sold, but 15,000 is by far and away the biggest ever uptake in the county. There is a huge interest in the game as can be seen when you go around the county.
“The fact we have not been able to get out for big games for the last few years means people are mad keen to go to live games again.
“The two stands, the Gerry Arthurs and Pat McGrane, were sold out at the weekend and there were still a few tickets available for the Eastern Stand and terrace on Monday evening but I suspect they are gone by now.” As early as Monday, Ulster GAA stated: “It is unlikely that any further tickets will be available on general sale online or in stores, due to the large requirement of county committees and clubs from the participating counties.”