'For Donegal, the register was ringing at will'

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Sunday, 23rd June, 2019 4:48pm

'For Donegal, the register was ringing at will'

The pre-match view on Fermanagh St in Clones.

Paul Fitzpatrick
at St Tiernach's Park

Sunday morning, omen-hunt. In Virginia, where the sun was shining, on the pavement with his Sunday paper under his arm was Hugh Barney O’Donoghue, Ulster medallist in 1962. 

And in Ballinagh, former stars Mossy Corr and Philip Smith, looking like he could still tog out. We’d take that midfield today, someone said.

The tribes were heading for the Ulster final. At the bottom of Fermanagh Street, moving through the fair, was Peter Reilly, one of the greats. And perched in the back of the stand later we would find, Fintan Cahill, the man who put the ball in the Kerry net.

There was a dead heat rising up out of Clones, a strange, broiling heat. Negotiating a path through town, we felt it. It was short sleeves and shorts weather. Kingspan-clad Cavan fans were everywhere.

At the back of the stand, we met Paddy Sheanon, the vice-chairman.

“Some Cavan crowd, Paddy."

“Must be 10-to-one.”

That was another omen, surely. And then we pulled ourselves together.

Was it a sign of madness, this searching for little indicators out there in the ether, portents that this might be our time? Where does the line between history and hysteria blur? The answer – on Ulster final day, nerves-a-fluttering, you’ll take anything. A song, an old face, a memory even - if it makes you believe you'll win, it's welcome.

One more giveaway, this one born more of the real world. We spotted Gerry Smith, relaxed and fit-looking as he jogged out for the pre-match warm-up, no strapping on the hamstring. The Lavey man would surely start. Did that mean we had a full hand to play?

Soon, the ball was thrown in. Cavan looked jittery early on but when Conor Brady zipped through the centre and fisted over a point, we dared to hope. Conor scored the first point against Monaghan too and that one worked out okay.

Quickly, Donegal hit three-in-a-row and, in response, Cavan’s talisman Gearoid McKiernan curled in one. A pattern had stitched itself to proceedings and Cavan couldn’t seem to shake it off.

Donegal missed some goal chances as Cavan hung on desperately, needing shelter from their blaze. We counted down the seconds to half-time and when it came, Mickey Graham made it last.

After a delay, Cavan returned to the fray but, in the third quarter, not much changed. Cavan were like a shopper looking for a deal, pressing and pushing and haranguing for what they could get.

Donegal were giving nothing away cheaply and, at the other end, the register was ringing at will.

Down by eight at half-time, Cavan would win the second half by three. In that, they can take some solace.

What went wrong? The Breffni kick-out was routed; that was the cause of much of Cavan’s troubles. But Donegal were the better team, a machine and a mean one at that. They hit hard, hit early and late and often. Cavan, you sensed, were struggling with the physicality.

And whatever luck was there seemed to fall Donegal’s way, too. Down by double scores, 0-18 to 0-9, Cavan put a stirring run together with points from McKiernan, Mackey and, after a sweeping move up the left wing, a thrilling score from McVeety.

Suddenly, the Breffni hordes found their voice again but just as quickly, the momentum was lost. A light drizzle had started to spill; McKiernan aimed a pass at Caoimhín O’Reilly, it skidded over the end-line. In a flash, it seemed, Jamie Brennan had the ball in the Cavan net and that was that.

On the O’Duffy Terrace, someone released a flare. It signalled victory for Donegal. Cavan’s dream, billowing away with the plumes of green smoke.

Still, the clock showed that 15 minutes remained, even if the result was beyond doubt. How Cavan went about their business in junk time would, in the end, say a lot about them and that old blue jersey. They kept on fighting.

From our position in the gantry, the fair-weather fans were seen streaming out of the hill. Those who remained were rewarded when Mackey set Conor Madden up for a palmed goal which put six between the teams again.

After that, it was as you were  - a Cavan score, a Donegal score or maybe two, a familiar recurring theme – until a freakish final flurry.

A 45 from Ray Galligan struck the crossbar, the ball was recycled and Madden pointed. Then, Conor Moynagh caught Donegal snoozing and Stephen Murray palmed in a goal.

A four-point game, somehow. Could it be? Sadly not. Jason McGee won another kick-out, the ball was worked up the flank and Donegal earned a free which Michael Murphy converted. Five in it and soon, ‘Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal’ was reverberating around the old ground and half of Donegal seems to be on the pitch.

Donegal people, including the players, celebrated wildly. For the Cavanmen, no-one sank to their knees in despair. The game was over too far out for that and, anyway, Cavan’s players deserved to hold their heads up high. There was much to be proud of, despite the result.

Donegal are the real deal. Cavan are a work-in-progress; they were well beaten but there’s no shame in that. It was the highest-scoring Ulster final that ever was. Cavan played their part and showed they will be back.

Eventually, the cheering died down. Selfies secured and pints to be drank, the Donegal fans who had lingered on the pitch slowly slipped away.

Their team are deserving Ulster champions while Cavan have another chance to extend the summer into August. Hands up who among our fans wouldn’t have taken a five-point defeat in the Ulster final were they offered it in winter...

In the shade, the pressmen began to wrap up their work. Deadlines to be met and tomorrow is Monday. And it was then that the realisation struck the Cavan folk and we reached for our jackets.

A day that had begun so warmly was almost over. A chill had set in.

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