Hidden in the mid-table anonymity of Division 1 of the Allianz National Football League is the team-building success story of the season so far.
You may have to look closely and look under the rock of a couple of results to see performances, but the development of Donegal into a potent force ahead of this summer is evident.
Since the beginning of Declan Bonner's tenure, the challenge has been to transition what was a bountiful supply of underage talent into players who could grow into senior inter-county footballers.
Now, early in year three of that task, the evolution appears to be close to completion.
Bringing players out of youthful habits towards the resilience required at the top end of Gaelic football is both a physical and emotional journey. And, even if it was a long-term goal of the coaching staff, it has been orchestrated and breathed oxygen through the leadership of their totem Michael Murphy.
Over the past two seasons, as players such as Michael Langan, Ciaran Thompson, Eoghan Bán Gallagher and many more showed inconsistent glimpses of their potential, Donegal’s captain remained the consistent corner stone that performances could be built on.
Most of the remnants of the Jim McGuinness era moved on and it sat squarely on Murphy to set standards and light the path for the next breed. The final game of the 2019 Super 8s in Castlebar was the perfect example.
With qualification on the line, the game effectively became a quarter-final and most of the young Donegal players – who had performed wonderfully through the season – froze with the magnitude of the occasion and the physicality of the challenge Mayo brought.
Murphy’s second-half tour de force in wiping out former Footballer of the Year Lee Keegan amounted to the equivalent of putting the team on his back and carrying them where he knew they needed to go.
Ultimately, Donegal and Murphy came up short in Castlebar but the yardstick for measuring the readiness of their group was laid out plainly.
Students of the occult define a talisman as an object that holds magical properties which provide power, energy and specific benefits to the possessor.
Murphy remains at the peak of his capabilities and he brings power, energy, craft, creativity and ruthlessness to this Donegal team. More than that, he incubates those qualities in those that follow him.
On Sunday, the sight of their captain throwing himself on a block 20 yards from his own goal during a second half where Donegal were in control must be the most empowering of experiences imaginable for those around him.
An experienced axis
The evidence is that this potentially brilliant team of young footballers are now significantly along the journey towards competitiveness at the very top level, which they set out on together in 2018.
Alongside Murphy, Bonner has been careful to retain stability and no little amount of quality through Neil McGee, Ryan McHugh and Paddy McBrearty. That experienced axis has given the rest something to lean on as they grew.
All of a sudden Shaun Patton, Gallagher, Langan, Thompson and Jamie Brennan are exceptional footballers to underpin their senior cast. Before injury, the unfortunate Stephen McMenamin represented the very highest standards also and will return with an impact.
Keen scholars of the evolution of this Donegal team will have noted each of their significant player developments.
Patton is already one of the best three goalkeepers in the country and arguably the most accurate and resourceful men behind a kick-out.
Eoghan Bán has had an interesting league. In addition to his natural marauding in counter-attack, Bonner has asked Gallagher to take on man-marking duties. That exposure to the very best will stretch Gallagher further and potentially create a key component for Donegal in building a team.
While Langan and Thompson make increasingly fruitful playmakers, it is Brennan that has established himself as a scoring forward that strikes fear into opponents.
As much as any of those individual developments, Donegal are now benefitting from the literal weight of a team physically matured and capable of winning their own ball again.
Two years in the trenches
Donegal’s league position does not reflect the performances they are either capable of or have produced.
The three games in which points were dropped this season were eminently reversible. Mayo stole a point in round one with a goal from the last kick after Donegal had dominated. Somehow, a seven-point lead midway through the second half against Galway, with the breeze at their back, turned into a single-point defeat after Murphy and Thompson both missed late opportunities to equalise.
Donegal’s late eclipse against the five-in-a-row champions is the one that will grate most. In control for much of the game, they allowed Dublin to creep close enough so that an uncharacteristic Patton error was enough to allow another two points to slip through their fingers.
They have, of course, comfortably despatched both Meath and Monaghan.
The supporting cast are approaching full power and so Murphy’s reward for two years in the trenches is a team that is now equipped to challenge for national honours.
If the talisman was required to invest time in lifting all of the boats in the Donegal harbour under Bonner, the team are now in a position to repay him.
This season, the big Glenswilly man has spent more time at full-forward – where many believe can have the biggest impact.
This is possible because he can now trust the team further out to defend as a unit and create opportunities going forward. With Murphy as the focal point in attack, Donegal are a far more potent proposition.
Donegal have built very steadily and now possess the collective emotional intelligence, physicality and resilience to consistently trouble the very best in the country.
The final piece of the jigsaw is to translate possession and greater quality in games onto the scoreboard.
Ultimately, Bonner can be more than happy with the results of his original task of building a new team from underage raw materials.
However, there are bigger goals and the groundwork Donegal have built over two years has created a seat at the top table with Dublin and Kerry.