Sean McVeigh hoping Donegal can break Mayo hoodoo on Croke Park stage
Nickey Rackard Cup final: Donegal v Mayo (tomorrow, 1.30pm, Croke Park, live on TG4's YouTube channel)
SEAN McVeigh has soldiered with Donegal since he was 16 yet nothing catches as he scans back over his 14 years in gold and green, grasping for something ahead of tomorrow's Nickey Rackard Cup final.
For much of that time Donegal and Mayo have been in different divisions, the westerners often just that step ahead in the push for progress, even if so many of the frustrations are familiar as both counties have yo-yo between Rackard and Ring campaigns.
“I don't ever remember being on the winning side against Mayo,” admits the 30-year-old, calling off the search for that elusive memory.
“I wouldn't say it's something that gets in your head, definitely not. It's definitely something that focuses the mind and something that we're going to try and fix come the weekend. It makes you understand that you're up against a good side and we'll need to have a hell of a performance if we're going to win.”
This is definitely true, considering Mayo hurled through the spring in Division 2A of the National League, going toe-to-toe with McDonagh Cup teams like Antrim, Kerry and Meath while Donegal were making their way up and out of the division two rungs below.
However, it is a measure of the strength-in-depth in Mickey McCann's Tir Chonaill side that - even in the absence of key trio Declan Coulter, Davin Flynn and Bernard Lafferty - they still managed to see off Longford and Tyrone as they chase a third Rackard crown in eight years.
There is also no shortage of insider knowledge on Mayo within the Donegal camp, with Ciaran Finn and Joe Boyle both gearing up to take on their native county in Croke Park tomorrow.
And while captain McVeigh plays down their importance, Finn's former Toureen team-mate Cathal Freeman believes it gives the Tir Chonaill men a “significant advantage”.
“There's a number of the Toureen lads involved with Mayo and Ciaran would have a great knowledge of all the hurlers in Mayo,” he said.
“They'll have a significant advantage in terms of having an insight into us so we've had to work extra hard to ensure we know as much about them as well.
“Ciaran would never be shy of a few words and he's let me know a couple of things alright, but none to our benefit at least.”
The outcome of tomorrow's game will go some way to informing where these counties stand in this strangest of years but, for McVeigh, the bigger picture in Donegal offers more hope for the future.
Trying to grow the small ball game in a football-mad county remains a tall order, but he sees signs of growth that can help the next generation push Donegal on even further – following the lead of counties like Kerry.
“You'd never really put a ceiling on it,” he said.
“There's definitely a lot of potential within Donegal hurling. There's more and more clubs popping up now. We've got hurling in the west of the country for probably the first time with Dungloe.
“We've Gaoth Dobhair who have underage teams and Carndonagh are playing up in Inishowen, you've got Ballyshannon playing down in the south of the county. It's starting to be well spread. It's not going to happen overnight where you get to Joe McDonagh or Liam MacCarthy but there's definitely potential there and a lot of hard work being done, particularly at underage.
“There's not a massive hurling community in Donegal but the community is very passionate about it. And there's a number of lads who have given such long service to the Donegal jersey like Joe Boyle, Danny Cullen, and Jamesie Donnelly and Mickey McCann who are both on the management team there now. They've given serious service to the squad.
“We've got two Nickey Rackards, it would be lovely to get a third and really try to cement ourselves as a Christy Ring team beyond that. As a senior county team, if we can lift the bar and get to those higher levels playing against better teams, you'll see what that'll do. It'll bring it into the club championship and it'll filter down to clubs.
“I think there's a lot of potential there across the rest of Ulster as well to make a big push in the next 10 years.”
PATHS TO FINAL
Round one: Donegal 2-13 Longford 1-14
Round 2A: Donegal 3-13 Armagh 1-9
Semi-final: Donegal 3-25 Tyrone 1-21
Round one: Mayo 3-32 Monaghan 2-10
Round 2A: Mayo 1-24 Tyrone 0-9
Semi-final: Mayo 3-23 Leitrim 1-11
WHO'S THE BOSS?
FEW know the terrain in Donegal as well as McCann. A long-serving goalkeeper with Burt, he was part of the Tir Chonaill side that swept to the 2011 Lory Meagher title and played alongside several of the men he will send out at Croke Park tomorrow.
Took on the job towards the end of 2017, guiding Donegal to the Nickey Rackard title the following summer. In a campaign blighted by injury and absentees, they fell back through the Christy Ring trapdoor but with promotion back to Division 2B already secured, victory tomorrow would be a great way to finish a strange year.
A FORMER player with the county who was not afraid to put his head above the parapet when it came to calling out a lack of support from the top for smaller hurling counties such as his own.
A natural fit as manager, he took over the reins in 2018 and is determined to establish Mayo as a Christy Ring force before adjusting their aspirations. Relegation from a strong Division 2A earlier this year was tough to take but, with only four players remaining from the 2016 Nickey Rackard triumph, the experience of running out at Croke Park tomorrow will stand to this emerging crop.