When Donegal beat Armagh by a point in the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park, Jim McGuinness gave the post-match interviews a miss.
Instead, selector Damien Diver sat in a rather surreal setting in the Cusack Stand media room, which had no lighting that particular afternoon.
Diver spoke about Donegal’s narrow 1-12 to 1-11 win illuminated only by a selection of mobile phones being used as voice-recorders.
McGuinness was out in the open, where he watched Dublin hammer Monaghan.
And when sections of the media pack got whispers he would field questions after the second instalment of the double-header, in which Dublin had swatted away Donegal’s beaten Ulster finalists 2-12 to 0-11, they went to the fourth floor.
They were there well before the game finished, only to learn McGuinness had already returned to his panel at the Skylon Hotel.
The Donegal support made their way home with something of a sense of dread about the upcoming semi-final against a Dublin side many claimed were ‘unbeatable’. But McGuinness didn’t learn anything that afternoon that he didn’t know before.
Three weeks’ later he pulled off one of the greatest coups in the modern game — something of a tactical masterclass — when Donegal upset the football world to beat Dublin 3-14 to 0-17.
In terms of silverware, that win, ultimately, meant nothing. Donegal lost the All-Ireland final 2-9 to 0-12 to Kerry in September and by October the advert signs were out for a new manager.
Those same Donegal followers make their way to Croke Park on Sunday to face seven-from-seven Dublin with the same pangs of anxiety.
Rory Gallagher’s contemporaries — as they’ve proven with three comprehensive wins followed up by four losses — are something of a mixed bag.
In those four defeats since early March, Donegal have tailed off badly from positions of promise early in the second half. They were level in against Kerry in Tralee against the wind and ahead against in Dublin and Monaghan, while also cutting their arrears against Roscommon from seven to two. And yet, nothing.
“It was a combination of us tiring and them really wanting it,” Gallagher said of the 1-10 to 1-9 reversal to Monaghan, a match in which Donegal led 1-4 to 0-0 after 20 minutes last week.
“We’re disappointed we did not produce the level of performance in the second half after what I thought was an excellent first half performance.”
“It’s been average in terms of results but in terms of learning it’s huge,” captain Michael Murphy added. “The games we won we knew we weren’t at that huge high. And the four defeats aren’t the huge low. Something in-between. We’re nine weeks out from championship and that’s what we’re looking at.”
Last year, Donegal had a league semi-final just five weeks out from an Ulster SFC preliminary round against Tyrone, which acted as a springboard for provincial victories over Armagh and Derry before a one-point reversal to Monaghan in the final in Clones.
Now, the calendar is kinder. Donegal take to the field the ninth of nine in Ulster on June 12 against the winner of the preliminary round tie, Fermanagh against Antrim.
Eamon McGee hinted last Sunday that Donegal haven’t ‘pressed the button’ fully on their fitness preparations.
“We will knuckle down and it’s not going to be a nice few weeks,” the corner-back said. “Maybe the bodies were a bit tired, and the mind followed then. But we have plenty of time to get it right for the championship. If you were to pick it, it’s where we want to be. Stutter along through the league, maintain your position, and then press the button for championship.”
Forensic examination of league form has never given much clue to which Donegal will enter the championship. With Jim McGuinness, like in 2014, there always was a possibly there was an ace up the sleeve. Rory Gallagher’s Donegal are still finding themselves.
“Four defeats is not the way we would want it to be but we have to deal with that now,” Gallagher said. “I would be more concerned if we weren’t doing a lot of things right.” Sunday — just like the league —isn’t the be-all and end-all for Donegal.
The jury up there has never sat till June. That’s the place they’ll be judged.
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