Still sporting the bloodstains from battle, Jim McGuinness emerged to the mouth of the tunnel of St Tiernach’s Park with the Anglo-Celt Cup swinging by his side.
He revealed the marks on his polo shirt were Eamon McGee’s when he cleaned the Ghaoth Dobhair man’s battle scars to see out the battle.
“I might frame it,” McGuiness joked.
Despite all that has gone before, including the 2012 All-Ireland title, McGuinness declared this victory as his best. Donegal’s third Ulster title in four years it may be, but more importantly for now, it’s their second coming.
“People have been asking questions and we’ve answered those questions,” he said as the beaming smile turned momentarily into his poker-face.
“If your character is questioned it’s a very important thing to any person in any walk of life. From when we went back training in the depths of winter, today was a long, long way away for players who have been around the block. They had to go back and they had to do it and believe they’re good enough and get over the line. That’s why I’m very proud of them. That makes it our best ever.”
The 0-15 to 1-9 victory avenged last year’s final reversal against the same opposition, Malachy O’Rourke’s Monaghan. That 0-13 to 0-7 reversal remains Donegal’s only loss in 14 Ulster championship matches in four seasons under McGuinness.
The aforementioned incident with McGee was just one of a portfolio that would’ve given purists weight for the argument.
When Chris McGuinness’s goaled for Monaghan on 51 minutes to bring them back to within a point, right before McGee left the field, the chips seemed to be stacking towards the reigning Ulster champions, who Donegal hadn’t beaten in the championship since a similarly tempestuous Ulster semi-final in 1983.
“It was a physical encounter, there’s no question about that,” McGuinness added. “There are a few men carrying knocks in there, but the body will repair after a few days. There were tough physical challenges going in and when you see blood on one of your players then you’re going to get animated. It stays on the pitch, though.
“It was a physical game. We dealt with the physicality a lot better. We were smarter and more intelligent on the ball than we were last year. We made it easy for Monaghan last year in many respects.”
When Monaghan cracked Donegal 12 months ago, Mayo then blew them to smithereens in the All-Ireland quarter-final two weeks later. It was said then that Donegal were a spent force; McGuinness’s system had collapsed.
The perception of Donegal had shifted. The manager and his panel adopted the old Musketeer attitude – all for one and all that ... — and, just like when he took over initially after Donegal’s 2010 hammering by Armagh in Crossmaglen, the starting base was a low one.
“The bottom line is that this team was written off when they came out of Croke Park last year,” McGuinness added.
“It was very important to get back to the final after losing it last year. Our players spent many years without winning anything. They won their first in 2011 and then 2012, but there was the pain of last year, we lost the Ulster crown and that impacted on the All-Ireland crown.
“You have to look deep inside yourself early in the year and decide that you want to get to this stage. They did that and they faced down the challenge. They worked really hard, were very focused and committed to playing for Donegal.
“This was a situation where they were being questioned. There is only one way to sort out those questions and that is out on the pitch. It’s our best victory because of the circumstances.”