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From 'dire' days to the summit - the decade that changed Donegal


Mark McHugh

Mark McHugh

Mark McHugh

The BBC went for "abysmal" to describe Donegal's performance in their championship exit to Armagh in 2010. Adjectives from other outlets included "beleaguered", "catastrophic" and "dire" as Donegal offered only the meekest of resistance in Crossmaglen.

Who knew that there was a champion team in the county at the time? But a little over two years later, Donegal would be All-Ireland kings. What's more, 13 of the players who featured in Crossmaglen that day went on to play in Croke Park as Donegal swept past Mayo.

Before Jim McGuinness, Donegal football was a conundrum. Talented surely, but they had a reputation for being unorganised to the point where they could appear disinterested.

Perhaps 2007 summed them up best. That spring they were crowned league champions, a considerable milestone considering it was just their second national title.

Later that summer, they dethroned Ulster champions Armagh but were hammered by Tyrone next time out.

Leitrim took them to extra-time in the qualifiers before they then suffered an eight-point trimming from Monaghan. They were yin and yang.

In the winter of 2008, the players wanted incumbent manager Brian McIver to remain at the helm.

After all, that league final win had seen them end a 13-game losing streak in finals in all competitions but some clubs stood in his way. An unholy mess that caused division among the 1992 All-Ireland winning team ensued.

Eventually, John Joe Doherty was handed the reins, ahead of the likes of McGuinness and current boss Declan Bonner.

Doherty lasted two seasons, with that defeat in Crossmaglen his final game in charge.

That winter, it felt like the county was starting all over again. There was no sign then of what was to come.

McGuinness is credited with the transformation but even after he moved on, they have thrived.

In the 10 years since the road home from Crossmaglen has become Donegal football's Road to Damascus. Donegal have since claimed an All-Ireland title and five Ulster crowns, a feat which equals their efforts for the previous 100 years plus change.

Mark McHugh straddled both eras. He watched on as a youngster as Donegal threatened - but ultimately failed - to make breakthroughs in the 2000s. And he made his full debut in Armagh that day after showing well in the near miss against would-be All-Ireland finalists Down.

"Going up (to Crossmaglen) I thought we had a good chance" said McHugh, who had featured in the county U-21s' All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin earlier that year. "But I was new into the squad. And Armagh were a huge team for Donegal then. Donegal could never get over them. And when the draw was made for that game, nearly unknown to me a lot of the senior players, I don't want to say gave up hope, but Armagh had Donegal's number for years."

Playing down the road from his house, Jamie Clarke left scorched earth behind him. And perhaps the most galling part of that defeat to Armagh was that so few were surprised that Donegal had fallen on their sword.

On Saturday, the two sides meet again and a decade on, the worm has turned. Donegal are the province's top dogs, having contested eight of the last nine Ulster finals.

McHugh sees a county transformed in how it is seen and how it sees itself.

"Donegal was looked upon as a soft touch, no team had any real fear of playing them at all."

They are a soft touch no more. In the wake of Kerry's exit, they are now second favourites for Sam Maguire. The county has learned to expect. And most will bank on them finding a way past Kieran McGeeney's Armagh side.

"To be fair that all stems from Jim McGuinness and it's that belief. Donegal always had talent. Speak to any former player from outside Donegal, they always knew Donegal had some of the best footballers in Ireland - it was just a matter of putting a plan in place for them.

"And success breeds success like it does in any sport. If you get into that mentality.

"And if you ask a lot of the Donegal players now, with all of the Ulsters they have, they still would be hurt they don't have another All-Ireland and that's what they are aiming for."