IN MARCH 2012, Sam Maguire felt a long way off when Kerry sent Donegal packing from Killarney with an 11-point defeat.
Kerry were 2-16 to 1-8 winners at Fitzgerald Stadium and notions that Donegal could challenge the great men of the Kingdom were firmly put on hold.
Yet, six months after that long, agonising ordeal beneath the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, the same 15 Donegal players walked behind the Artane Band for the All-Ireland final against Mayo.
Along the way to capturing Sam, Donegal left Kerry in their slipstream, even if they were hanging on for dear life before claiming a 1-12 to 1-10 win in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
That was perhaps the day the landscape changed and Donegal went from being friend to foe.
Last March, Donegal walked out at Austin Stack Park in Tralee and could feel the 2014 All-Ireland final still lingering throughout a strained afternoon.
A crowd 6,250 attended and the tension from the previous September was clear as tempers boiled when the teams made their way down the tunnel at half-time.
By the end, Kerry were holding on for dear life, but won 2-13 to 2-11.
In the stands, it was clear that these two were now serious rivals.
“We have probably earned that in the last few years,” says Rory Gallagher, the Donegal manager, as he prepares to clang swords with Kerry tomorrow afternoon.
“We went down there in 2012 and it was all very jovial. They kicked us off the field and we were great fellas heading up the road.
“We beat them in the quarter-final that year and the 2014 final was so close. It was so hard fought, that final, that it was inevitable that last year’s League game was going to be the way it was.
“It’s a good rivalry to have. It’s really enjoyable having rivalries with top counties. There’s good banter, good intensity to it all.
“For us, we want to keep improve and be competitive, but we want to win these big games, too. We have to embrace these challenges head on.”
You have to go all the way back to 1988 to find Donegal’s last League win in Kerry.
It was a day when Pat Spillane gifted Donegal the game-turning goal in a 1-10 to 0-11 win.
Six minutes into the second half, Spillane was marauding his way through Donegal’s rearguard when a hand-pass was played straight into the palms of Martin Shovlin.
Via Marty Carlin, Shovlin worked the ball in to Brian Murray, who rounded his man and buried past Charlie Nelligan, the Kerry goalkeeper.
Tom Connaghan had just guided Donegal into Division 1 and the previous year Donegal had won the All-Ireland Under-21 title.
Connaghan was keen not to give an inch. There was a clash of jerseys, but Donegal refused to change and Kerry lined out that afternoon in Austin Stack Park in the blue of Munster.
“Spilane inadvertently passed the ball to a Donegal man in the belief that he was finding a colleague,” was how the Donegal News recalled the mishap from Spillane.
Donegal go into this weekend’s game at Division One’s summit having taken wins over Down, Cork and Mayo, but Gallagher will be cautious of a Kerry side that took their first win of the campaign last Sunday when annihilating Down 0-22 to 0-6.
Marc Ó Sé, Bryan Sheehan, Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper appeared for the first time in 2016. Kerry have been slow-burners in the League under Eamonn Fitzmaurice, but in front of their own in Tralee is always a difficult assignment.
“The crowd down there is very partisan,” says Gallagher.
“This will be a big learning curve for a lot of our players, but they’ll have to get a feel for it.
“We want to test ourselves in these kind of games. It would be the same if we’d won none or won three games going into it.
“Kerry were in the All-Ireland final last year and won it the year before. We know all about Kerry and their tradition, but with the focus we have we’re confident of getting a win.
“This is the kind of game where we’ll find out more about players, young and old. We went to Tralee last year with great hunger and we took an awful lot out of that game.
“This is a huge opportunity for our players, to play against a team that was in the All-Ireland last year. We have to react to that and produce another big performance.”Tags: