Donegal begin their quest for a seventh successive Ulster SFC final appearance on Sunday when Antrim roll into Ballybofey.
Ulster SFC quarter-final
DONEGAL V ANTRIM
Sunday: MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey, 4pm
Referee: Paddy Neilan (Roscommon)
The north-westerners have brought a level of consistency in recent times in what’s considered the most potholed province — but it wasn’t always that way.
From his championship debut in 2007, it took Michael Murphy almost four years to win so much as a match in Ulster.
When it did come, Antrim were beaten 1-10 to 0-7 in a low-key encounter in the rain in Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher’s first championship game in charge in May 2011.
“It was a win,” Murphy says looking back. “It was a first win in Ulster for a lot of us. I know it probably wasn’t a great spectacle. Even playing in it, it was tight and claustrophobic. For us, coming off the back of it, it was all about getting a championship win.”
Another reason for Donegal’s delicateness might be the fact that during those barren years, Antrim produced one of the shocks with a 1-10 to 0-12 win. After that 2009 success, manager Liam Bradley stated that Donegal “were sitting ducks.” Murphy, 19 at the time, played that afternoon too.
“People looked at it as a massive shock but I suppose you look back at us at that time; we weren’t playing that well,” he says. “We hadn’t won many games in Ulster to have any great expectations. Confidence was at a really low ebb. The belief wasn’t there.
“Being in that kind of scenario, confronted with adversity, it was a very difficult ask of us. The belief just wasn’t there to pull through. That’s where we were at.”
Where Donegal are at now remains to be seen. With a sprinkling of new faces they’re perhaps more 2011 than 2009. Time is flying and a fresh-faced Donegal have had to move with it, which they showed after a commendable third-placed finish in Division 1 having been tipped for relegation before a ball was thrown into the air.
“It is,” Murphy adds of how the months have become years.
“It’s ridiculous really. It’s a cliché and people say it’ll all be over before you know it. They’re right. The years just roll into each other. That’s probably the big change. One time you could let yourself go for a month or two and ‘winter well’ as they say.
“Now, you look after yourself. If you don’t, you’re already playing catch up. It’s just not worth putting yourself through that. For us, it’s a slightly new team going into a big game.
“For some lads, it’ll be their first day out in Ulster. For us as a side collectively, it’s the first day out. There is no harm in saying that championship is a different animal completely to league.
“These younger lads now are really focused and driven. They have been brilliant. There is now a certain way of playing, certain way of training and a certain expectation.”
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