SIGN OF THE TIMES Donegal supporters are pictured during the 2012 All-Ireland Football Final against Mayo at Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile
DONEGAL people are cracked. I say this not pejoratively, but in admiration. I do not wish this to be pinned to the dressing room door in Ballybofey at training on Thursday night and used as motivation to beat Mayo. MAYO HACK CALLS DONEGAL PEOPLE CRAZY is not a headline I wish to read in the Donegal Democrat. This is merely an observation, an ode even, to our western cousins.
You do not need to have lived in Donegal to come to this conclusion. If you attended university in Galway in the last hundred years you have surely encountered enough Donegal people – all very different from each other – and so can attest to their wild eccentricity. Donegal people simply do not conform to any reasonable equitable metric of what ‘normal’ people should be like.
Obviously, they speak differently, talk Irish differently, most of them have never been to Athlone and don’t care to ever visit. Many of them have never been on a train. They differ wildly depending on what part of the county they themselves hail from.
It’s a long way from Bundoran to Rossapenna, just as it is from Glencorrib to Kilcommon, but Mayo people are more easily categorized and easier to predict based on their allegiance to county. If you stopped and surveyed the passengers on a Feda O’Donnell bus heading north one Friday evening in mid-March, the breakdown with regard to personality types, geographical nuance, desired career and accent would blow any researcher’s mind.
There are Orange Lodges and Celtic supporters’ clubs in the same town in Donegal. They are an impenetrable, erratic, artistic and independently glorious people.
Which made it a shame that it was Mayo that fell foul of the Jimmy McGuinness revolution in 2012, otherwise you would have been happy for them. That victory was typically inspired by tactical ingenuity and executed by young men whose villages perch over the wild Atlantic like sets from a Wes Anderson movie.
Neither was it a fluke — in the seven years since Donegal have picked up three Ulster titles in what remains the most competitive of provinces. Added to that, the arrival of young players such as Jamie Brennan and the rejuvenation of Ryan McHugh and the rehabilitation of the brilliant Paddy McBrearty and you have a Donegal team that once again look the equal of any in the chasing pack.
And we haven’t even mentioned Michael Murphy, who you wouldn’t be too surprised to learn was an unused sub on the 1992 all-Ireland winning team, aged 3.
Yes, Donegal people are cracked. Cracked enough to quietly poach Stephen Rochford north, manager Declan Bonner clearly self-confident enough to bring in another voice and in no way feel threatened. Cracked enough to not let a relegation to Division 2 trouble them, bouncing straight back up none the worse for what others might have a found a degrading experience. It’s impossible know from the outside, but Donegal football looks in rude health, and more crucially, the Donegal set-up looks a fun place to be.
Which has me worried. The form of this Mayo team is reminiscent of the FÁS scheme of old - one week on, one week off – and any prediction of how Saturday night might go is mitigated by the unpredictability of a team capable of the four seasons in one half of football. Forgive the segue, but Derek McGrath speaking on this weekend’s Sunday game brilliantly laid bare the folly of over-analysis when recounting the media’s reaction to a humiliating early season loss by his Waterford team to Tipperary in 2016 – a loss attributed to a team too constrained by prohibitive tactics, an over reliance on systems – and the subsequent inquest into a glorious dismantling of Kilkenny by the same Waterford team in an All-Ireland semi-final later that season – a victory inspired, according to pretty much every analyst, by the removal of the “shackles”, and an apparent abandonment of the system.
McGrath recalled his bemusement at the over-simplification of this reportage, instead outlining it was the better execution of the rehearsed plan that was responsible for the reversal in fortunes, not some feckless abandonment of said shackles.
Which only serves to highlight the frustration in trying to judge Mayo this season. We are no better than the farmer in the field predicting the weather based on where the cow is sitting. Some things we know for sure – David Clarke is about as comfortable with whatever our kick-out strategy is as a young suitor would be watching Eyes Wide Shut with his future parents-in-law, and Donegal will likely punish same far quicker than a game but naïve Meath. The upside is, Andy Moran’s apparent permanent relocation to a Wellness Spa has seen him become Mayo’s most effective attacking weapon again, which, given he saw no game time during Mayo’s defeat of Galway, only exacerbates the utter confusion of it all.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s Mayo who are cracked.
We will find out Saturday.