After the worst of weeks, an Ulster final that lit up Clones for the best of reasons. Derry and Armagh played out a nerve-shredder in front of a sell-out crowd, taking the day all the way to penalties before Derry finally prevailed. It was as if both teams could tell that as long as people were lost in the football, there’d be no cause to talk about Rory Gallagher.
The cold numbers of the day barely do justice to the drama. A full-time score of Derry 1-15 Armagh 0-18. Odhran Lynch diving for three saves in the shoot-out, earning Derry a 3-1 win. Armagh losing on penalties for the second time in two seasons, repeating the manner of their exit against Galway in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final. They’ve scored two penalties from seven kicks in shoot-outs now.
It means Derry go back-to-back in Ulster for the first time since 1975-76. They were led for the day by Ciarán Meenagh, selector under Gallagher for the past four seasons. There’s no guarantee he will be in charge for the rest of the season – he brushed off any questions about the future. He was, however, thrust into an impossible situation here and saw it out as best he could.
“Look, my motto in life is ‘no fuss, no drama’. Just get on with things,” Meenagh said. “That is the way life goes and you treat it as such. I had a job to do today and you just get on with it. You don’t know, it is a lottery with how things pan out.
“I suppose it boiled down to my confidence and belief in the players and it is very much a collective management team. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t apprehensive because I was confident we were going to win so you just take it in your stride and you get on with it.”
Gallagher was the great unmentionable here. The whole day played out as a sigh of relief that he wasn’t on the sideline, that the Ulster final didn’t have to deal with the whole mess. There was a half-page on him in the programme, which had obviously gone to press early in the week. But, otherwise, nobody said his name out loud.
They said it in quiet corners, of course. In the walk to the ground, in the pockets and nooks of St Tiarnach’s Park before the game, in the side-of-the-mouth conversations around the place – it was all anyone talked about. How could it not be? The Derry jubilee team from 1998 were apparently considering not turning up for their half-time presentation before Friday night’s announcement that Gallagher wouldn’t be leading out their team.
His absence in the wake of domestic abuse allegations by his ex-wife meant that the occasion could go off without everyone on tenterhooks. The last thing the Ulster Council wanted was an incident or a talking point.
On television, RTÉ cut to an ad break before Conor Glass began his winning captain’s speech, presumably erring on the side of caution. They need not have worried – the Derry captain impressively negotiated what had to be a tricky speech by thanking management, staff and players all in the one breath.
“We kept things as normal as possible,” Glass told us afterwards. “We’re a mature group. We have mature leaders in [Brendan] Rodgers, Shane [McGuigan], Chrissy [McKaigue], Benny Heron and myself. We knew we had done the hard work. We trained, we ate, we slept, we went to the gym. We had full confidence coming here.”
There wasn’t a bee’s eyelash between the sides. Armagh gave away a sloppy first-half goal to Rodgers under a high ball and handed Derry a cushion they held all the way to added time in normal time. Between the 30th minute and the 73rd, neither team managed to put two scores back to back – for 13 points in a row, the two sides alternated.
Back and forth, to and fro. Though Armagh never led in normal time, they wrested the initiative in extra-time. Twice, they went two points up, both inside the last six minutes. Shane McGuigan pulled Derry back into it, Lachlan Murray grabbed the lead again as the last sand slipped down the hourglass. But Stefan Campbell won a free in the last Armagh attack and Rian O’Neill sent it to penalties.
“Every session, we take penalties,” said Kieran McGeeney afterwards. “Penalties are a funny thing. It’s not like a skill set, it’s a pressure thing being able to deal with that. They were good saves, they weren’t bad penalties.
“The football spoke for itself. It was a fantastic game of football by both teams. It’s probably one of the few provincial games left that showed something. I think we’re one of the top teams out there that just makes small mistakes. Today, in fairness to the boys, they didn’t. We pulled ourselves well back into it. Although it’s a brilliant game for the neutrals, it’s a shitty one for us.”