MICHAEL MURPHY can remember a time when it wasn’t like this.
The Glenswilly man has captained Donegal to a fifth Ulster title. First drafted into a Championship panel 12 years ago by Brian McIver, Murphy actually waited until 2011 and the arrival of Jim McGuinness to savour a win in Ulster.
The All-Ireland in 2012, the Ulster U21 crown in 2010 and a pair of Division Two titles have also been lifted by Murphy.
“Now you’re in the middle of it, you want to go and get more,” Murphy says ahead of Sunday’s clash with Meath in Ballybofey.
“That’s just the nature of the beast. You just want to push on. You’re happy with Ulster, so what’s next? The Super 8s. To get better than last year, you have to get out of the group.
“We had plenty of opportunities last year to get out of the group and we failed on that. Our goal is to get out of the group now.”
Donegal soared to the Anglo Celt this year after impressive wins over Fermanagh, Tyrone and Cavan.
Before the final, Declan Bonner, the Donegal manager, noted that his team didn’t get the credit they deserved in 2018, but now Donegal are cited as genuine All-Ireland contenders and the main threat to Dublin’s five-in-a-row crusade.
“That’s why we’re here, otherwise we’d pack the bags and stay in Donegal Town,” Murphy says.
“But, we have three Super 8 games to play before you’d even have an All-Ireland semi-final so I’d be foolish to start speaking about an All-Ireland.
“Yes, you dream about it. There is a hell of a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and an All-Ireland final. We just take one week and one game at a time. There’ll be ups and downs, teams hitting form, and it’s vital that we look at the first game and try to improve our performance.”
Last year, and the way it ended, hurt Donegal.
It’s clear that Murphy remains stung by the events of that August Sunday when a late Tyrone salvo ended Donegal’s campaign. A first defeat in League or Championship football in Ballybofey left a deep gash.
Donegal meet Meath by the Finn on Sunday in a repeat of this year’s Division Two final, when Donegal came from eight down to overcome the Royals.
“We have plenty of motivation ourselves,” Murphy points out.
“We got beaten by Tyrone in our last Championship game in Ballybofey last year. That is still fairly raw in the group.
“It was in front of our own people, in front of our own supporters. That’s something that we’ll be hammering home. It’s there in the back of the memory and the group will know that. We want to put that right, no matter who the opposition is.”
A few moments in Murphy’s company is enough to see how and why he’s seen as a leader of men within the confines of the dressing room.
Murphy has scored more than any other Donegal player in history, though his own game has evolved so much from the full-forward that burst onto the scene over a decade ago. He looks now at the emergence of a host of young players, like Stephen McMenamin, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Michael Langan, Jason McGee and Jamie Brennan and wonders of the possibilities.
“The younger lads have come up through underage teams that were winning Ulster games,” Murphy says.
“They grew up with that mindset and being a team that can compete at latter stages.
“When they come into the senior team then, the normality of it is that they expect to compete. It doesn’t always work out like that.”
Murphy talks of the ‘dark days’ before the arrival of Jim McGuinness and notes how Donegal’s players ‘fronted up’ in 2017 when heavy defeats at the hands of Tyrone and Galway left many wondering if Donegal’s day in the sun had ended.
He says: “The influx of young lads with belief has helped us have another tilt.
“The two or three coming in is the gold standard of what you’d want. Everyone kept fronting up and trying.
“If we keep putting in that two or three and the rest of us keep improving too, then that’s something that the management keep harping onto us – every one of us has something to improve on.
“By God, we have a lot to go after as individuals and as a team from our Ulster final performance to go into the Super 8s. That’s what we’re held accountable for every night we’re in training.”