The Donegal skipper aims to lead his side to their sixth title in 11 year
Between 1958 and 1975 Down contested 16 Ulster football finals. Sean O’Neill was still eligible for minor grade in 1958 but for the other 15 he was ever present, playing his last as a 35-year-old in 1975.
O’Neill won eight Ulster medals from his 15 finals. While Down’s breakthrough had many elements, his presence on the team for 17 years, his genius, shaped their success more than anything else. It was his era.
Even as their All-Ireland winning credentials were fading O’Neill ensured Down remained the most viable force in Ulster.
The 1971 Ulster Championship was among his best. Down’s unbroken sequence of 12 consecutive provincial final appearances had been shattered the previous year when Antrim beat them in a quarter-final. Coming after an Ulster final defeat to Cavan in 1969, their powers appeared to be eroding.
But O’Neill almost single-handed lifted them off the floor again in 1971. He scored two of their three goals in their 3-14 to 3-6 win over Donegal in an early round and created three of their four goals against Derry in the final. Another All-Ireland title eluded O’Neill and Down in this era but their successes in Ulster sustained them for a long time after 1968.
O’Neill’s status as one of the greatest ever Gaelic footballers is enshrined. In Ulster he’d be the the first choice of many. His singular influence on a county in the province stands apart too.
What Michael Murphy has done with Donegal through this era however invites comparison.
On Sunday, Murphy and Donegal will contest a 10th Ulster final in 12 years. While the initial impetus and spark undoubtedly came from Jim McGuinness and the vision he created when he was appointed as manager in 2010, this era of prolonged Donegal prominence in Ulster is now more indelibly linked to Murphy.
For all nine finals between 2011 and 2020 he has been captain, Sunday will be a 10th time for the Glenswilly man to lead out his team in Clones or Armagh as the case was in 2020.
They’ve won five of the nine final on this stretch, matching the county’s entire haul in the previous 123 years that an Ulster Championship was contested.
There’s an argument, and a strong one at that, that the province is more competitive now than it was through the 1960s when O’Neill was in his prime. Donegal and Derry did reach a few finals but Down really only had Cavan to contend with in those years.
It’s a different environment now which makes Donegal and Murphy’s consistency all the more commendable. For appearances in each of those 10 provincial campaigns that have brought them to finals, the captain stands apart.
They’ve played 34 games and Murphy has started 33, the opening game of the 2012 campaign against Cavan still his only Ulster ‘blank’ as he sat it out with a knee injury.
Patrick McBrearty has spent the next most time on the field, making 30 starts and three more appearances off the bench, including his 2011 debut against Antrim while still a minor.
Neil McGee’s time on the field is more sparing these days and a couple of minutes when the semi-final against Cavan was done and dusted the last day gave him a 31st appearance of the 10 campaigns in question. Of course McGee’s portfolio of Ulster Championship games is more expansive as the player who has played for Donegal more times than any other.
His sidekick in the full-back line Paddy McGrath clocked up 28 appearances, one as a substitute, in those ‘Ulster final’ years making one of the biggest contributions to a glorious spell for the county.
The 2011 and 2012 Ulster Championship wins came before Ryan McHugh’s time but after making a couple of appearances off the bench in 2013 he has been ever present and has made pivotal impacts to help Donegal reach the other seven finals since.
In broader terms Donegal may be defined by their failure to reach an All-Ireland semi-final since 2014. Not adding to their solitary All-Ireland title in 2012 on this stretch was something that followed Joe Kernan’s Armagh team around after their 2002 success.
Armagh won seven Ulster titles between 1999 and 2008, winning all seven finals they contested, a phenomenal achievement. But a second All-Ireland eluded them and rankles with them to this day.
There’s a symmetry between what O’Neill did for Down in the years after 1968 and what Murphy has done with Donegal since their collapse to Tyrone and then Galway in the qualifiers in 2017 when it looked like they had collectively run out of road.
Two more Ulster titles and two more finals have followed in the last five years. In 2019 He may well have made his best season as he picked up a third Allstar.
How different might 2021 have been had Murphy not been sent off against Tyrone in the first half of the Ulster semi-final. Coping with 14 players for much of it is a challenge for any team. When it was Murphy, that loss was wildly exacerbated.
The debate will on where his best deployment for Donegal is. He looks a natural predatory threat at full-forward but his interventions around midfield, particularly in 2018 and 2019, have given Donegal a different dimension.
This season he has operated between the two positions and when the game against Cavan needed turning, inevitably his shoulder was to the wheel. Few can take a temperature of a game like him.
A player of his stature, a team of their ambition, will never want to be defined by provincial glory. For Donegal an All-Ireland remains an ambition.
But to collect a sixth Ulster title from 10 finals would be a remarkable milestone this weekend, 11 years on from their first one on his watch when Derry, ironically were their opponents and Rory Gallagher was in their camp as McGuinness’ assistant.
Murphy is still standing, so too is McGee and McBrearty from that day. It’s been quite an era.