Donegal stand united in rise from the ashes
McGuinness evolution based around brains as well as brawn, writes Colm Keys
In the bowels of the Hogan Stand sometime on Sunday evening last, Daniel O'Donnell, wearing what looked like a retro Donegal jersey, made his way discreetly up to Mark McHugh and expressed gratitude to the young man for what he and his colleagues had done for their county.
It's hard to imagine that there is a bigger personality from Donegal. If the sea cliffs of Bunglass, just a few solid belts of an O'Neills size five away from where McHugh grew up in Kilcar, were transformed into the county's Mount Rushmore, Daniel's image would surely take pride of place.
But as the Donegal players emerged from the triumphant dressing-room to engage with their own local media around the team bus, O'Donnell felt compelled to deliver a simple message of thanks for what he had seen.
What a difference 12 months has made. The slingshots and arrows that greeted the performance in defeat to Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final have been replaced by a communal hum of approval.
As much as they might have improved in the first year under Jim McGuinness' tutelage, it's the hard yards that they have made over these last 12 months to where they are now that has been even more staggering.
Can any team just hand in their passports to their team management and follow the relentless grind of preparation and slavish adherence to a system, as Donegal apparently have done? The difference may just be intelligence.
Donegal, quite possibly, left an All-Ireland behind them last summer. But the evolution in their game has blown learned football people away.
No one has perhaps influenced that evolution more than McHugh, the 22-year-old with the build of Mo Farah but most importantly the football brain of his own father Martin.
The delegation of the 'libero' role in Gaelic football demands the recipient to play with intelligence. Too often managers have delegated without that specific in mind. But McHugh has taken the role to a new level. No one has perhaps played it better than he has this summer.
'The Sunday Game' put the clock on him for Donegal's eighth point and from the moment he stooped to gather after Donncha O'Connor's spill to the fisted point that gave them a 0-8 to 0-7 interval lead just 23 seconds had elapsed.
No other passage of play exemplified the evolution of Donegal's play more than this did. Twelve months ago he might have gathered and turned back to the safe haven of those behind him.
Through Frank McGlynn, Paddy McGrath and Anthony Thompson they have redefined the concept of building from the back in Gaelic football. What Tyrone began in 2003 now looks more than a little pedestrian.
Karl Lacey won the first of his two All Stars as a corner-back primed for destruction. Now, he is one of Donegal's most creative forces, finding gaps and timing his runs off the shoulders of his midfielders with the precision of a Swiss clock.
The evolution and intelligence is further reflected in the impact a player like Neil Gallagher can make and how he has managed to fit into the system or how a young man like Paddy McBrearty, so used to being the centre of attention on any team he played, grows accustomed to the role of domestique.
"Neil is an example of a fella who had to try and develop in a different way to try and fit into the system that we're trying to create. He has done that unbelievably well. As has Paddy McBrearty," noted McGuinness.
"Paddy was the star of the show in every team he has played in, all the way up the ranks. 'Give me the ball, give me the ball, give me the ball' because there was nobody better on the pitch and people were feeding him the ball.
"Now Paddy plays shoulder to shoulder with Michael (Murphy) and Colm (McFadden) and he's a very important player but he's not the star of the show. They're all very important links in the chain. He's made that realisation at 17 years of age and changed his game accordingly. Neil Gallagher has done the same. He has a very good pair of hands but he moves the ball a lot quicker now as well.
"He plays intelligent football and he adds a lot of value to us because he has taken the information that he needs to make him a better player and he has brought that into the group."
For McHugh, the opportunity lost 12 months ago was foremost in their minds when they retired to draw breath after the summer's most hectic 35 minutes of action last Sunday. It was the source of their second-half inspiration.
"At half-time in the dressing-room, that game was mentioned. We were in the same position last year and we didn't push on and I think that is where the second half came from, that little bit of hurt that we had from last year, we drove on.
"We played better in the second half than we did in the first and we certainly played better in the second half than we did last year. The hurt was always there and you learn from your experiences, you learn from your mistakes and thankfully we learned and we pushed on."
To win only a second All-Ireland title Donegal must evolve that little bit more in four weeks' time because standing still is not something they have done in the two years since McGuinness finally got the green light to manage his county.
And any evolution in the final must focus on getting Murphy on the ball in better positions than he has found himself in so often in the summer.
There were encouraging signs of a more conventional attacking role for Murphy last Sunday. Cutting him loose now may well be the final piece in the jigsaw.