Donegal hoping to avoid being fifth All-Ireland champions in 20 years to fall at first hurdle in Ulster
Uneasy lies the head that wears the northern crown
Colm McFadden of Donegal celebrates his goal with Christy Toye and Brian Roper in 2004, when Donegal beat All-Ireland champions Tyrone. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho
Tomorrow in Ballybofey, Donegal become the latest county to wrestle with one of football’s most daunting statistics: that detailing the fate of All-Ireland champions in the Ulster provincial championship.
In the 23 years since the province started to make a regular home for Sam Maguire – Ulster teams have won more All-Irelands than any other province since Down made the modern breakthrough in 1991 – on only one of those nine occasions to date have the champions gone unbeaten in the province a year later.
More surprisingly four of those defeats have taken place in the very first round. Falling at the first fence is rare for All-Ireland champions and outside of Ulster has happened only once in the past 50 years.
Why has the provincial championship disproportionately tripped up Ulster teams in both the modern era of qualifiers with their second chances and the 1990s, when slip-ups were not recoverable?
Competitiveness is an obvious sort of answer but 20 years ago Ulster became football’s centre of gravity. In four successive years the All-Ireland went north and impressively, to three different counties – the first time that had ever happened in successive years. The decade was the first to feature more than one Ulster county winning the All-Ireland.
If a side was good enough to win the province they were good enough to travel to Dublin in confidence.
It still gets referred to as the match of the ’90s: Down travelled to Celtic Park in May 1994 to take on the All-Ireland champions Derry. The visitors had had some of the gloss of their All-Ireland win three years previously scuffed away by successive defeats against their opponents the one in ’93 a thrashing.
That was the year Derry’s manager the late Eamonn Coleman told journalists in Newry – who, still in thrall to the pyrotechnic possibilities of Down’s forwards, had formed a consensus that the home side would win – “youse boys are no tipsters”.
Celtic Park a year later finds its echoes in tomorrow’s confrontation: champions against recent champions although Down hadn’t lost as many to retirement as Tyrone. It bore another similarity. Since the championship draws had been made, the fixture was the stand-out event of early summer.
It helped to focus minds in a turbulent dressingroom. It helped Greg Blaney to reconsider his retirement and under the cover of low expectations, Down journeyed to Derry .
The victory was in a thrilling slalom of a match. First Derry, then Down, then Derry but with the champions apparently turning the screw, James McCartan – now manager of his county – scored a breakaway point to steady Down and Ciarán McCabe’s goal after a sweeping move effectively settled it in the closing minutes.
Many of the themes of that period in Ulster are evident in the match and its aftermath and still strike a chord today. “We have focused on this and thought about it for 12 solid months,” said Down manager Peter McGrath whose team went on to win that year’s All-Ireland.
“It’s been everything in our lives, everything we have been working towards. That single-mindedness – you could see it out there today.”
Mickey Moran was on the other line that day, as Eamonn Coleman’s coach. Hugely experienced in the inter-county game, having managed four counties since then, he looks back at that day and expresses what the first defence of the title is like for champions.
“It’s like another All-Ireland for you, The first time since September that it really matters, it’s the first time since you won that you’re really on the line. In ’94 we were quite fit but tried not to dog the players. No matter how you try, though, the celebrations go on and on and focusing on training before Christmas was pointless.
“Residual fitness – both mental and physical – was enough to get us through the league but it’s very hard to get back up to the highest levels of fitness again.”
Yet it wasn’t just contenders that could successfully ambush All-Ireland winners. Maybe it was the lack of traditional aristocracies in Ulster – the province’s most successful county up until then had been Cavan whose fifth and final All-Ireland in an extraordinary 20-year period came in 1952 – but possession of the Sam Maguire didn’t guarantee much deference in the province.
Even in the modern era Armagh couldn’t survive injuries to Kieran McGeeney, Oisín McConville and Ronan Clarke when their first draw as All-Ireland champions conjured up Monaghan. Joe Kernan’s team recovered to reach that season’s All-Ireland final but their year defending the All-Ireland was one of only two Ulster defeats during Kernan’s six-year tenure.
A year after Down’s Celtic Park triumph Peter McGrath was on the other end of a surprise. His team’s first defence of their titles in 1995 was in Clones against Donegal. A six-point defeat led to an honest consideration of what had happened.
“You never know until you meet the white heat if you have the edge. We lost the cut and thrust we had at this time last year. The winning or losing was in our hands but we didn’t play well, only for a patch in the first half.”
Mickey Moran concurs with this. “You have to change things, small things even in terms of personnel or in how you approach preparation. You feel you’re fit, as good as last year but no matter what you say the same edge is not there.”
Maybe encouragingly for Donegal tomorrow, the county made the best fist of surviving in Ulster , the year after winning the 1992 All-Ireland. Speaking to this newspaper last year Brian McEniff, who managed the county 20 years ago, said that he regretted having progressed as far as they did in the 1993 league.
Having lost a replayed final against Dublin, Donegal picked up injuries, which undermined the championship even though patched-up as they were they ran Derry very close in the Ulster final. They are the only one of the defeated champions who made it as far as the provincial final.
Tyrone won two of the county’s three All-Irelands through the qualifiers but never managed to put titles back-to-back. Mickey Harte’s ability to make seminal tactical switches during a season and sometimes during a match was integral to the county’s success.
Eventually he broke the sequence in 2009 when Tyrone became the first All-Ireland champions to add the Ulster title a year later since Down in 1961. But in 2006 when he had lost Peter Canavan to retirement and Brian McGuigan to serious injury, Harte’s team lost on their first outing.
The protocol of losing in the provincial championship changed after the qualifiers were introduced and reactions in defeated dressingrooms had to become less elegiac but there was a universal resonance to Mickey Harte’s response to exiting the 2006 championship against Laois.
“We also knew that anyone playing the All-Ireland champions have nothing to lose. We’ve had to live with that and we hope to live with it again in the future. It wasn’t designed for us this year.
“It’s been a difficult year. It’s very hard to see quality players getting serious injuries. But it happens and it happened to us.”
Tomorrow he’ll be looking to make it happen to Donegal.