'People talk about systems, tactics, fitness and machines but the bottom line is you won't win an All-Ireland unless you have very good players'
Published 04/01/2013 | 05:00
In the blink of an eye Cork were blinded and the gates to glory were thrown open for Donegal to step through. All-Ireland football semi-finals have a habit of delivering high points of the season.
Think of that epic 2005 battle between Tyrone and Armagh, Mayo's scintillating comeback against Dublin 12 months later or the drama and controversy that cloaked Down and Kildare in 2010.
And now this.
When Mark McHugh gathered the ball after Donncha O'Connor had been dispossessed in his own territory, 34 minutes into the first of 2012's semi-finals, and quickly turned defence into attack, the 'prepare for landing' alerts began to sound and the flight path for the new champions began to dip in altitude.
With still a game and a half to play in the championship they were already heading in to destination All-Ireland title.
Over the next 22 seconds, McHugh would skip from one end of the field to the other, linking first with Leo McLoone and then drifting beyond the cover as Karl Lacey took out three Cork defenders by checking back outside to pop a pass into McHugh, who fisted over for a 0-8 to 0-7 lead that they would take into half-time.
It may not have felt like it at the time but it was the game's pivotal play, maybe even the season's pivotal play, and the moment when Cork, and just about everyone else, realised that Donegal were at arm's length to everyone else in 2012.
They just weren't going to go away.
Coming off the field, Cork's body language suggested such sentiment too and for much of the third quarter Donegal went to work in that part of the game where they had been strongest all season.
Seven times they had been level in that epic first half, trading points like two heavyweights exchanging blows.
Something had to give. And eventually it was Cork. They had brought patience to their play in the expectancy that Donegal's concentration levels could not hold forever.
If they looked after possession they'd get the breaks and there was evidence in that first half that those breaks were coming.
But, crucially, Cork never managed to get two points clear and as half-time approached, the case for them was starting to crumble. Donegal had them where they wanted them.
There was history and status attached to beating Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final but Cork were many people's idea of All-Ireland champions.
They had looked a step above Kerry in June and, having given up their title quite easily in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo, they had approached 2012 with a new sense of purpose.
But Donegal absorbed everything they had thrown at them in that opening 35 minutes and the future champions did not have that same sense as everyone else as they convened in their dressing-room to assess where they were.
As Rory Gallagher, Donegal's assistant coach, recalled, there was disappointment that they had coughed up so much.
"We got back into the dressing-room and we were quite concerned, not with the way we were playing, but with the way we were defending," he recalled.
"We pride ourselves on our defence, limiting opportunities for opponents but in that half we had conceded seven points and that, for us, was too much.
"At the other end, however, we felt we were getting a lot out of our full-forward line. There was one lay-off from Michael Murphy to Colm McFadden that worked really well after a long ball in from Anthony Thompson. We felt we could get more from that."
Gallagher concedes that Cork's ploy of pushing Paddy Kelly up on their sweeper McHugh did cause them problems.
"We had expected it from them. We had heard it was probably coming. Kerry had done it with Killian Young but he is a defender. Kelly is a very good forward and took one of our early kick-outs and put over a point. It took us a while to figure it out."
When they did, McHugh became one of the architects, his driving runs and link play from the heart of the defence through the middle of the field one of the chief evolutions from the game plan they brought in 2011.
That evolution was evident in other individuals too. Paddy McGrath was a functional corner-back in 2011, concerned only with defence and attending to his direct opponent. This season his 50 and 60-metre forays out of defence became a feature and indeed a springboard for a new style of play.
No game reflected Frank McGlynn's progress more than that All-Ireland semi-final and the point off his left foot early in the second half after pressure was exerted on Noel O'Leary as he scrambled to collect Aidan Walsh's stray pass.
McGlynn seized possession himself and shook off Eoin Cadogan's attentions before switching to his weaker foot and guiding over a point going away from goals for a 0-10 to 0-7 lead.
The satisfaction for Gallagher lay in the fact that they won an All-Ireland title with conviction and so much style.
Pilloried in so many quarters for their approach in 2011, their rate of progress in the second 12 months was even greater than the bounce provided by new management in year one.
"Looking back on it, I'd have to say that (the difficult fixtures) added to it. We won it coming from the preliminary round in Ulster for the second year running, winning our provincial title and beating counties who all have quite a pedigree," Gallagher acknowledged.
"People talk about systems and tactics and fitness and machines but the bottom line is you won't win an All-Ireland title unless you have very good footballers and I'd like to think that was the main reason why we won it.
"We were able to mix our football up and use a different approach to different scenarios.
"I wouldn't like to say that we were never troubled in the championship. Of course we were, but I'd like to think that we always had a fair degree of control in the games we played and that was good.
"I think people will look back on the 2012 championship and say that Donegal were convincing champions. That's satisfying."
The impact of what Donegal have done in just two seasons under the McGuinness/Gallagher axis can be profound over the next few seasons in providing a pathway for so many other county teams.
Is there any reason why some teams shouldn't believe that they can't ditch their inferiority complex and trek that same pathway?
McGuinness made much afterwards of an 'order of merit' article in a newspaper not long after he had taken over which had them at 19th best in the country at the end of 2010.
Such articles can be subjective but after losing to Armagh in a 2010 qualifier by 13 points it was hard to fight a case for them being any higher.
Donegal's triumph, their journey from Crossmaglen more than two years earlier, represents probably the best coaching performance in modern Gaelic football, an achievement recognised by Celtic's hiring of McGuinness in November as a performance coach.
Ominously, Gallagher projects more from some individuals in 2013 that will bring even greater collective strength. The improvements evident in McGlynn, Gallagher and McGrath may manifest in the coming months in McLoone, Ryan Bradley and even Murphy.
"I know we have yet to see the best of Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty," said Gallagher.
"I don't think there is a Donegal player that can't improve, that can't add another few per cent to his game. And the good thing is that they are keen to improve, keen to get going again."
Looks like they may be here to stay.