Paddy McGrath quickly endeared himself to Jim McGuinness when they first worked together at under 21 level in 2010, the year Donegal narrowly lost the All-Ireland final to Dublin. The story of McGrath playing the final with a broken jaw fast-tracked him into local legend. Simple arithmetic of the component detail satisfied McGuinness that here was the type of player who wins you matches.
They've won a few since then. There is even an account of a past life where they met on the playing field in direct opposition, in league and championship games between Ardara and Glenties. A memory stirs. "I don't know if he would remember, and it is something that I have never mentioned to him," says McGrath, "but I remember I was going forward and I was just getting ready to take a shot and he must have been about 10 yards behind me. I heard this roar - 'Arragggh' - but it did enough to put me off. I was only young, playing in one of my first senior games. I skied the shot. I don't mind him putting me off but he was nowhere near me and I just thought he was an awful lot closer. It just goes to show . . ."
By then McGuinness was an old lion nearing the end of his playing time, McGrath a wide-eyed cub. When their paths crossed again McGrath was well aware of McGuinness' burgeoning reputation as a young manager, having steered Glenties to a surprise county championship. They knew McGuinness had a system with his own patent. "You always heard about what Glenties were doing and everything else. The (county) under 21 set-up was probably one of the best set-ups I was ever in: just the players, the friendships and everything else, and at that stage everything was new to you. We didn't have a lot of joy at minor level, it was just an incredible journey that we went on that year and the rest was history."
A spread of illness in the Donegal panel in the week leading up to the All-Ireland under 21 final threw their plans into jeopardy, but on the day they were a missed penalty away from winning. "It is funny how it goes around, because a lot of those players in the Dublin team would not be (involved with the seniors). Rory O'Carroll, Jonny Cooper was captain, I was marking Dean Rock that day; it is funny how it goes around. Yeah, a lot of the boys had the flu that day and they were all taking Berocca (a vitamin and minerals supplement) and trying to give themselves energy for the game."
Beating Dublin in this year's All-Ireland semi-final provided some measure of compensation, but the under 21 defeat still grates. The sharp disappointments of 2013 when they were dethroned in Ulster and lost their All-Ireland title in a collapse against Mayo are more acute and recent. Those experiences make McGrath appreciative of what they are living through now. He is talking a week after the semi-final. "Everyone played well, everything went for us as well. It could have changed in a kick of the ball. If (Diarmuid) Connolly had got that goal it might have been a different story and we might have been too far behind but we kept plugging away. A lot of things went for us. They missed a lot towards the end and things went for us."
Precarious as Donegal's position looked when five points down, McGrath insists their belief never wavered. "No. We were still in the game even though we were five points down. We were still in the game even though we were not playing that well so when we got our patch in the game we had to start making hay."
McGrath has had to work hard, and often alone, after a lengthy absence due to injury, and only returned for the first round win over Derry on May 25. His troubles started last year with Gilmore's groin, leading on to a groin tendon tear in a club game soon after the Mayo defeat in August. It ended his season and required surgery at the Mater Private under the care of Gerry McEntee.
Various comeback targets - the McKenna Cup, the early league rounds - had to be reset. "It just wasn't right. The medical team made the decision and they were not going to put me back into competitive football until I was right and Jim gave me time. The medical team worked with me constantly and it was a credit to them. There is a lot of work behind the scenes that people don't see."
Before the Derry match he felt ready. He had played some club games and made Donegal's training trip to Portugal. "I wanted to start the (Derry) game to tell you the truth. I didn't rule myself out one bit and Jim, he doesn't tell you but you just have to prepare as if you are starting. I was pleased I was starting, I was happy I was starting. I was a wee bit nervous and I was hoping that everything would go well for me and it did. The injury held up and that builds confidence every time then. It was great to get that one game under my belt and a few league games under my belt for Ardara at home. Everything was going well and it has stayed going well since."
That will not come as a surprise given that a broken jaw did not deter him, when he said the worst thing that could happen was that he'd break it again. "Yeah, I suppose everyone has heard that story at this stage and they are sick of hearing about it. If anyone else was in my position, they would have played as well. All-Ireland finals don't come around very often and thankfully this is our third one, including the under 21s. You just want to play because it is something you dreamed about as a young player and to be living your dream is just amazing. I know Donegal people use that word a lot but it is. It is a dream come through."
The relationship with McGuinness has deepened over their time together. He describes the players' respect for their manager as "immense". They've seen the two days. Last year's demoralising defeat to Mayo has makes them grateful for what they have. "Looking back on last year, it put everything into perspective - how hard it is to win anything, how hard it is to get back there. You don't really realise what you have until it is gone. We were determined this year to get back where we were. We knew what kind of a team we had, the management we have, we know that we can compete with the best, so this was always our main aim."
But the task remains incomplete. "There is no trophy. It was a great occasion (the semi-final) and it was good because of all the hype around Dublin. But Jim made sure we kept out feet on the ground. We went back training on the Tuesday night."
He was dealing with a groin injury while playing last year. "But it wasn't going to rule me out. Other players were carrying knocks and they all eventually caught up. We had a tough game against Monaghan, a week later we had a tough game against Laois - it was physical and it was tiring - and then you have a Mayo team that wanted revenge coming into Croke Park, a big space. . . next thing, boom, the wheels fell off."
McGrath was called into the Donegal senior squad after the 2010 under 21 campaign. His first start was the infamous defeat by Armagh in the qualifiers. He was burned by Jamie Clarke and substituted after 13 minutes. He says the support he received from players after that game helped. "The older lads all rallied round me. I wouldn't have known them too well. I was brought in late in the season - just for the championship. I got great support, the likes of Barry Dunnion gave me great support afterwards. I will always remember the phone calls I got from them (older players)."
But there was no need for hankies. "I'll tell you, I pulled a pair of football boots on the day after and played for the club and that was the end of it. It didn't really affect me too much. It was a bad day. I was 21. Football is football, it is a game at the end of the day and I'm not going to hide away."
His awareness of where football sits in the overall scheme of things was underlined in tragic circumstances when he lost his Ardara team-mate and friend, Tomas Maguire, who died in an accident in Australia in June, 2012. After winning the All-Ireland that year, McGrath visited his grave with the cup. "It was difficult. The year before when we won Ulster, Tomas, being Tomas, brought a Brazilian flag to the Ulster final; he was just one of them characters. A year later he wasn't there. Everyone was very emotional. Like, Tomas could have been part of the team (he was called into the squad in 2011) - he was a corner-back like myself and one of the stickiest you would ever come across and he reminds you a bit of Lacey, same style of player, jinky and sticky.
"Obviously, it was tragic around home but the boys took the Brazilian flag to the 2012 Ulster final and all the players signed it and that's why I had the flag in the Diamond [when Donegal returned with the Sam Maguire in 2012]."
After McGrath's difficult first season as a Donegal senior player, the arrival of McGuinness changed everything. "He took a lot of the under 21 team with him so it was the same kind of set-up. It was funny, all the older bucks were coming to the younger bucks and saying: 'What's this all about, him asking us questions?' We were just saying 'you'll see, you'll see' and they did. I don't know was it the hard way or the easy way but they found out."
McGrath is as an engineer with a company called Ward and Burke in Maynooth and has been living in Dublin for the past eight months. He salutes his boss, Shane McDermott from Fermanagh, for his generosity whenever he needed time off. He has spent the summer commuting between Dublin and Donegal with fellow exiles Paul Durcan and Declan Walsh. "It wasn't too bad. We have another trainer in Dublin, Eugene Ivers, and a strength and conditioning coach and a physio up there as well. We got a helicopter to training a couple of weeks ago, took an hour, wouldn't drive from Ballybofey to Ardara in an hour."
Years fly. While Ardara's Anthony Molloy, the captain in 1992, was a childhood hero, along with Tony Boyle, McGrath is too young to have remembered the first Donegal All-Ireland win. The same blood, the same oath, a different generation. "I would be in front of the goal kicking points," he recalls of first picking up a ball. "Back in those days I wanted to be a forward. And it is still easier!"
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