Gráinne McElwain: Donegal’s strong bond with their public a key component of McGuinness’s success so far

Tir Chonaill faithful buying into manager’s vision for the county and it’s already paying off

Gráinne McElwain

Gráinne McElwain

Grainne is a columnist with The Irish News. She is a sports broadcaster with experience working with Sky Sports, TG4, RTÉ, BBC and Eir Sport.

Donegal fans at the All-Ireland SFC match against Tyrone at Sean Mac Cumhaill Park in Ballybofey
Picuture: Margaret McLaughlinDonegal fans at the All-Ireland SFC match against Tyrone at Sean Mac Cumhaill Park in Ballybofey
Picuture: Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal fans at the All-Ireland SFC match against Tyrone at Sean Mac Cumhaill Park in Ballybofey Picuture: Margaret McLaughlin

Seán MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey was electric at the weekend. The crowds came early and it was clear that there were going to be a lot more Donegal fans present than those from Tyrone.

That is what came to pass and the scenes that greeted us all when Donegal won were unbelievable. Michael Murphy was on the sideline with me and I jokingly said on GAAGO that I now understood what it was like to be beside a celebrity.

It was true though. There is a genuine love and affection for the former Donegal captain as witnessed by the chants and cheers and he spent many hours after the game signing autographs and posing for photographs for kids and adults alike.

The players and Jim McGuinness quickly left the pitch at the final whistle before the crowds descended but those that made it in time, applauded and cheered as they left.

It reminded me of the scene in the film Gladiator when Russell Crowe’s character Maximus Decimus Meridus is being heralded through the crowds to the chants of “Maximus”.

The players and Jim were greeted the same way. It was lovely to be there and to see the effect Donegal’s journey is having on supporters. There is a huge sense of hope and optimism and what’s not to love about that.

Jim McGuinness talks to the Donegal players during their All-Ireland SFC clash with Tyrone at Ballybofey
Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Jim McGuinness has spoken of his desire to repay the faith of the Donegal supporters Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

It is still quite early in the football championship but signs are depressingly similar in that it is Kerry and Dublin who are above everyone else. This is why the Donegal story resonates with so many people as there is a genuine hope that another team can put it up to the big two and change the narrative.

I thought Derry were best placed to fit this new narrative but injuries and a decline in form since the league final has skewered that. They have a massive game on Sunday with Armagh and we will know more about where their story lies for the rest of the season after that.

What was clearly evident from Donegal’s win was their total belief in their structure and everyone knew where they needed to be and what they were supposed to do.

They attacked en masse and defended en masse. There is an embedded culture of cohesiveness, consistency and understanding in how they play and what surprised many was how they managed to raise their game after winning the Ulster final.

They looked better than what we saw in the provincial final win over Armagh and it remains to be seen if they can improve further.

Tomás Ó Sé on The Saturday Game highlights show on RTÉ added a caveat about Donegal that they have not played a team outside of Ulster and argued that it will be interesting to see how they fare against Dublin and Kerry. Jim McGuinness and Donegal will relish this.

Their pacy half-back line, who were excellent against Tyrone and scored three points, will not get as much freedom going forward against the All-Ireland champions of the past two years.

Michael Murphy on punditry duty last summer with GAAGO. It's hard to adjust to the idea that he's not playing for Donegal any more. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Michael Murphy remains an iconic figure among Donegal fans (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

Both Kerry and Dublin will prepare to the best of their ability to beat a team like Donegal but as Kerry found out to their cost against Tyrone in All-Ireland finals, there is a massive difference between being prepared and the actuality of facing what is in front of you.

That conversation, though, is for another day. The hype is great for the county but the reality is that Donegal need to beat Cork on Saturday to put themselves top of the group and into an All-Ireland quarter-final.

Cork will equally look at this as being a great opportunity to go for it at home. Donegal hammered Cork in round one of the Allianz League and they were without Shaun Patton, Michael Langan, Jason McGee and Oisín Gallen.

The Rebels did not score for the first 14 minutes in both halves, they struggled with their kickouts and conceded the kickout to Donegal. You would imagine that there will be a noticeable change to how they approach this game at the weekend.

After that league game, McGuinnes spoke about “the big crowd in Ballybofey and that all they want is to know that there’s an honesty and purity to what we’re doing and that we’re going to work hard for each other and try to do our best for them.”

In their win over Tyrone, he spoke of the supporters and “that they didn’t want to let them down”.

When asked about their second half performance, he mentioned about “keeping the energy going in the stadium in the second half and they did manage to do that.”

Donegal are channelling that energy from the crowd and using it to drive them on. They are not only cohesive on the pitch but also cohesive with their fan base who believe so much in this team. They will travel in big numbers once more to Páirc Uí Rinn to support this side.

It’s a big game for Donegal as they are still only level with Cork on two points each in the group.

In sport, you are only as good as your last performance. Donegal will want to make sure the music doesn’t stop just yet.