Heraclitean fire – it is always changing, while always staying the same.
The first big change was in the 1960s, when Down brought coaching and planning to a level never seen before in the game. They knew they hadn’t a midfield to compete with Kerry’s imperious Mick O’Connell, so Down decided to let O’Connell field to his heart’s content, but to tackle him when he landed. That, and changing football from a static game to a running one, totally changed the nature of the football played in the fifty years that followed.
In the 1970s came the Olympic Handball era and the superior fitness of Kerry and Dublin. The ‘eighties saw a return to a more traditional football, with the robust rivalries of Meath and Cork. The ‘nineties saw the return of Down, arrivistes who had become aristocrats as their once revolutionary game had now become the court standard. Galway took a hint of classicism into and across the millennium, until Ulster heralded another revolution.
The Tyrone blanket may have looked shocking in the 2003 semi-final against Kerry but everybody is playing that game now. Until last Sunday, when Donegal broke its metaphorical sound barrier. Cork and Donegal were playing the same game in the first half but in the second half all that changed, as Cork hit the wall while Donegal hit the gas.
It was extraordinary to watch. Two Donegal forwards would loiter with intent in the Cork half of the pitch, at full and centre-forward. The rest of the Donegal team would gather back in their own half – all thirteen of them. Cork had a man on each of the two Donegal forwards, and then a line of five or so defenders stretched laterally across the field, between the 21 and 45 metre lines. Waiting.
Then the Donegal attacks would come, a ball carrier roaring from the deep come hot from Hell, as Shakespeare might have put it, and with outriders in his wake.
Once the runner hit the thin red line, things started to happen. Either Cork would win it, or the ball carrier would lay it off to one of his outriders, or he would break through. It was when the ball carrier got through that was particularly noticeable, because the substantial Donegal support would let loose a throaty roar.
Once the ball carrier was in space he was assured of a score. Why not? He had no marker – he had breached the Cork defence, and scoring a point into the Hill was like popping one over in his back garden. The Cork backs had been left behind.
Cork had no answer to Donegal. Cork arrived in Croke Park as the biggest, toughest and fittest team in Ireland. The theory was that Cork would match Donegal for fitness and then run the bench in the final quarter, crushing Donegal that way. Didn’t happen. Jim McGuinness has tuned Donegal to a level that’s never been seen before.
So what fuels this burning desire? It’s not just fitness. There is a deep and howling need in the people of Donegal to win the All-Ireland. We all think our own people are the best supporters, irrespective of where we’re from, because we’re all formed by where we’re from but reader, take An Spailpín’s word for it. There is nothing like the Donegal support in current Gaelic football.
Much has been made of the Donegal regime and sports science is clearly revolutionising football at every level, but it’s hard not to believe that identity and questions of belonging fuel that extraordinary fire. It hurts to play for Donegal – there was a man walking off the field on Sunday whom An Spailpín would have put straight into an oxygen tent. It’s not money that makes a man do that. It’s something else.
Donegal has suffered a lot from partition as its natural hinterland, Derry, has been cut off from the border. Donegal is part of the south but it’s of Ulster. It exists between the two states – cut off from the partitioned state to which it naturally belongs, but hugely isolated from the southern state, that has never even run a train up to those famous hills and glens.
Identity is important for every county, but in Donegal, it’s important with bells on because of Donegal’s geographical and cultural isolation. The curent Donegal machine is fuelled by all those things that money can’t buy, like heritage, pride of place, mórtas cine.
Whether the current Donegal revolution is a moment in time, a rhyme of hope and history, or an evolutionary leap like Down in the 60s or Tyrone at the start of this century is something we’ll have to wait and see. And all of yesterday’s glory will instantly pale if they don’t seal the deal in four weeks. Dublin and Mayo will have their own thoughts on that. They like where they’re from too.