AS ONE Irishman famously put it about another code, the game is about glory, and if Donegal prevail on Sunday, there will have been few trails to an All-Ireland that surpass theirs in this most lasting of respects.
It is a remarkable transformation, from a team so noticeably back on their 2012 brilliance as they thread a narrow path past Derry, Monaghan and Armagh, prevailing more through bloody-mindedness than inspiration, to one that heads to Croke Park favourites to beat Kerry.
It is not the only striking change in how Donegal are perceived. In that fractious hurling summer of 1998, when just because Clare were paranoid, did not mean half the country wasn’t out to get them, many in Banner country noted how their popularity had declined.
They were universally loved after breaking through in 1995. In ’98, when they looked a good bet for a third lifting of Liam MacCarthy in four seasons, one of the foundations of their siege mindset was the theory that they were enduring a backlash for not taking their one All-Ireland and the accompanying patronising claps on the back and disappearing back to mediocrity.
Donegal are set to complete the same journey in reverse. Their stunning form two years ago engendered much admiration but little affection beyond the county boundaries — it is only now that most are willing to celebrate them as a great team and not just a team that had a great season.
Perhaps it was a hangover from the exaggerated reaction to a 2011 All-Ireland semi-final that was low in quality but high in spite, and the events that led to Diarmuid Connolly’s sending off in that game. Perhaps it was sympathy for Kevin Cassidy, so pivotal in 2011, so quickly cast aside in 2012 in a gross over-reaction to his fairly innocuous contribution to Declan Bogue’s fascinating This is our Year.
Whatever the reason, most neutrals probably would have preferred a Mayo win in that final. And even the tributes that flowed when Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden’s stunning one-two buried that idea spoke more to respect for Jim McGuinness’ mastery than love for it.
He was compared most readily to Jose Mourinho, dark as well as inspirational. Donegal did not mind — they had long since decided they preferred to be unsentimental winners than the loveable side with more style than substance that built hope only to plummet to humiliations such as the Croke Park debacle against Cork in 2009 and the Crossmaglen trimming in 2010.
Now they can be ruthless and popular.
One win has utterly changed how we look at Donegal’s form and their legacy — but what a win. We are quick to revise the narrative of games gone by to explain the latest result, but regardless of what happens on Sunday, it should never be forgotten that this side believed in themselves when no one else did, and more importantly, could sense Dublin’s vulnerability when hardly anyone else was willing to bet on Sam Maguire residing anywhere but Liffeyside.
McGuinness spoke this week of the season being built on a desire for Donegal not to be remembered for a 16-point quarter-final defeat, and scoring 3-14 against the most heavily-fancied football team since 1982 was surely the most stylish way to achieve that.
Every non-Dub in the country will have loved them for it, not just because of the natural fascination that always goes with the defeat of one of the sport’s two glamour teams, but because the match was a reminder that football remains gloriously unpredictable.
Indeed, Donegal’s opponents on Sunday have also taught us not to arrive at conclusions too quickly. It might seem perfectly natural for Kerry to be 70 minutes from glory, now that David Moran has stepped from his father’s shadow with an unforgettable midfield display, now that the threat posed by James O’Donoghue is backed by frenetic work rate all over the pitch, now that Peter Crowley and Fionn Fitzgerald and other unheralded players have proven they can grow in the most famous jersey of all rather than be burdened by the legacy it confers.
But it was hard to predict such an exciting season at any stage from the time Colm Cooper crumpled in his Crokes jersey to the day Cork ended Kerry’s league campaign in such depressing fashion in Tralee.
They make fascinating opponents for Donegal because they seem less likely to panic when, as Joe Brolly puts it, the nightmare is upon them, when Donegal are in touch and ready to accelerate through the third quarter and win the game.
You think of Cork’s half-back line and midfielders panicking in possession against Donegal in 2012, about James McCarthy picking the ball off the ground three weeks ago, and then you think that Kerry are likely to be more measured and assured in their ball skills when calm heads are called for.
But if foot-passing ability is rightly hailed as a cornerstone of Kerry’s status as one of the last two teams standing, Donegal are given too little credit for their own capacity to retain control of the size five.
Approaching half-time against Dublin, they had enjoyed 60 per cent of possession, according to RTÉ. Amid all the talk of blanket defences and gameplans, this is still the surest barometer of the health of Donegal’s game. So easily turned over against Mayo in 2013, against Dublin, in the face of a similarly fierce pressing game, they were as considered and accurate in the way they moved the ball as they were in 2012.
That is what makes you believe in them as they head into a difficult and enthralling test, what convinces you not just that you might subconsciously want them to win, to avoid their win against Dublin being spoiled, but that logically they should be favourites.
Kerry might not panic and give away cheap ball, but Donegal definitely won’t. That is the basis for the suspicion that they can rattle the net and prevent O’Donoghue from doing so, for, like Dublin, Kerry are less likely to score goals the less they have the ball.
The game is about glory but it is also about the presence of mind and skill to do the right thing with the ball. Both are within Donegal’s reach and that’s what makes it seem likely that Sam is for the hills for the third time.