Donegal one step from Sam after 20-year wait
THERE was a clash of styles on and off the pitch at Croke Park yesterday, even if the All-Ireland semi-final meeting of north and south didn't go exactly to script.
Donegal arrived as the 'Team Nobody Likes', pummelled by the pundits and with their fans smarting about accusations of negativity and "Puke Football".
Cork, with their power and pace (and their giants of men in midfield) were expected to give the dour northerners a lesson in attacking football and sweep onwards to the final.
However, the hordes of Donegal fans who began crowding into the approaches to Croke Park from lunch-time onwards yesterday were obviously expecting a different outcome. They easily outnumbered the Rebels by as much as four-to-one. And once they were inside, pockets of red were lost in vast swathes of green and gold.
Cork fans, not normally known for being plagued by self-doubt, were genuinely surprised to find themselves so heavily in the minority.
"I can't believe how many Donegal fans there are around town, and how few Rebels," said Aidan Quilligan, from Douglas, Cork, as he surveyed the scene on Jones's Road.
"We are never outnumbered like this, I don't know if people are hanging on for the final. I hope they are not going to be disappointed."
Eileen O'Callaghan and John Boyce were enjoying the atmosphere nearby, him in green and gold and her in the famous blood and bandages of Cork.
"I'm from near Coachford and John's from Letterkenny, we're sort of commuting to see each other at the moment," explained Eileen.
"We met up in Liverpool last November, he was on a stag, I was there with the girls. It's a bit of a trek to see each other but it's great to be able to come here today together.
"John was wondering where we get all the giant Cork footballers from. I told him there's a secret breeding programme."
Semi-finals are usually tense affairs, with both sets of fans knowing they are just one step from the top of the mountain. In Donegal's case, a mountain that has not been climbed since their glory year of 1992.
And both sets of fans were feeling the tension before the throw-in. Those in red were wondering if a less than active summer, averaging a game a month for their team, would see Conor Counihan's men arrive with a bit of rust showing.
Donegal's fans would have been just hoping for a win, whatever the pundits might say about their style. The constant brickbats about negativity may be creating an air of paranoia up in the far north-west. Just this week, a local politician went on Highland Radio to accuse RTE weather forecasters of being biased against Donegal and scaring off the tourists with soggy prognostications.
Whatever the weathermen had said, we had clear skies over Croke Park. And Donegal manager Jim McGuinness must have sent his men out with instructions to attack because their fans in the Cusack Stand were treated to the unusual sight of Donegal throwing caution to the wind and attacking from all angles.
Cork never really got going. Outnumbered, out-sung and watching a supposedly "negative" team suddenly transform themselves into the FC Barcelona of Gaelic Football, the Rebels were left muttering about "lads who didn't show up" and a manager who, to many of them at least, made some questionable calls (and who would be a bainisteoir?).
It was the Cork fans who left under a dark cloud. Into their first All-Ireland since 1992, Donegal's delirious faithful are seeing sunshine ahead, no matter what the man from RTE might say.