Donegal may be appearing in only their second ever senior All-Ireland football final, but their passion for Gaelic football is equal to any that have graced the great GAA citadel, that is Croke Park.
One of the last to affiliate to the Ulster GAA Council in 1905, they first competed in the Ulster senior football championship the following year. But such was the prominence of hurling or ‘caman’ in the county that a football team was hard to field.
Comprising mainly of men from Gweedore, with contributions from Letterkenny and Bundoran, it was an inauspicious and humble start for a county that now draws huge crowds to the Pale on successive summer weekends.
1906 was to be their last foray in Ulster until the revival of the county association in 1919.
More often referred to as Tir Chonaill in the early decades of the 20th century, they made their real breakthrough in the early thirties.
They reached their first Ulster junior final in 1930. Opponents Cavan, totally dominated Ulster in those early decades, but a falling out with the provincial council saw Donegal awarded the junior title.
A semi final tryst with the Dubs in Belfast, etched out a valiant draw, before defeat in a replay.
Back as Ulster champions again in 1933, Croke Park finally beckoned – the 1933 All Ireland junior semi final against Cork.
A wonderful day for the large travelling support, victory over the Rebels saw Donegal through to their first All Ireland final or ‘home’ final, as it was officially called.
That final remains significant as it marks the first and only meeting between Donegal and Mayo in an All Ireland football decider before now.
Dr Lagan Cup victors
The senior team breakthrough came in 1952, when Donegal won the Dr Lagan Cup for the first time after defeating Armagh in a replay. This was the equivalent of the northern section of the National Football league.
Armagh went on the following year to the All Ireland football final and were defeated by Mayo.
The National Football league semi final of 1952 against Cork marked Donegal’s first appearance as a senior team in Croke Park.
Back in headquarters in the All Ireland junior final of 1954, they were defeated by a typically solid Kerry performance. Two years later, a long awaited Ulster minor championship finally bore fruit.
Donegal was beginning to awake from its slumbers.
The swinging sixties saw Donegal emerge as a footballing force with victories to match their undoubted abilities.
Unfortunately they came into contact with a majestic Down machine that was also blistering the national stage with their prowess, becoming the first team from the North to win All Ireland senior championships in 1960, 1961 and 1968.
First Ulster senior final
Amazingly, Donegal’s first appearance in an Ulster senior final was not until 1963, followed by a second appearance in 1966, the day before the England/Germany World Cup final.
On both occasions, it was the Mourne men who prevailed and victory remained frustratingly elusive.
There was more Lagan Cup success with Donegal appearing in myriad national football league semi finals in the late sixties, but again passion was not equated with victory.
Finally, 40 years ago Donegal broke their provincial duck defeating Tyrone in the Ulster senior final of 1972.
The year with the two’s was again to play a significant role when the county won their first ever All Ireland under 21 title in 1982 against Roscommon.
Sam’s for the Hills
Fast forward another decade and 1992. Final day in the old Croke Park, jammed with 64,547 Donegal and Dublin fans. An edgy semi final victory over Mayo gave unpredictable soundings.
But Majestic Manus Boyle kicked nine points and Sam was finally heading for the Hills with captain Anthony Molloy and his memorable lines.
Another two decades on and Donegal face Mayo in the All Ireland senior final, notwithstanding a short interlude of octogenarian proportions since that 1933 junior tete-a-tete.
Final day itself will rekindle many personal memories for people. In my own case, it is my late father, Brendan, hoisting me over the turnstiles to attend my first final – ‘wee’ wooden rattler in hand.
In 1992, it brought tears of joy tinged with sadness, as he was not there to hug when victory could no longer elude us and Tommy Sugrue blew the final whistle.
For thousands of others, the final will also be an emotionally charged roller coaster.
A sprightly Jim Snow from Pettigo will, God willing, attend his 74th football final. His excuse for the 1947 final was the small matter of it being held in the Polo Grounds, New York.
John Murphy, a retired postmaster from Donegal Town and Ballyshannon native will continue a line of attendance that has continued since 1953, occupying the Donegal quarter, dubbed the Crow’s nest by Donegal supporters in the Cusack stand. His 60th football final.
And I hope my old friend Jim Carr, who attended his first Ulster senior final in 1946, will also be flying the flag, although the legs are not as sprightly as they once were and he may have to watch the big game at home.
More than most they know that Donegal’s journey has taken longer than others, but victory has always been the fulcrum keeping the dream alive.
For one team, that dream again finally become a reality when Laois referee Maurice Deegan blows the long whistle this Sunday, September 23rd 2012.
And the long road to Croke Park will become just that little bit shorter for either Donegal or Mayo.
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