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Darragh Ó Sé: Big event at Wembley obscures a true Ulster classic

Derry gave it everything but their season is over and sympathy is all they will get

When all eyes are fixed on a major tournament final like they were last weekend, the GAA has to take a backseat.

That's just the way of the world when a major tournament comes around. And like everyone else, I also sat down in front of the TV on Sunday night to watch the European final at Wembley, even though the highlights of a thriller were being shown on the other channel.

That being the case, it was still a little disappointing given the quality of the game we had seen between Donegal and Derry in the Ulster championship. The quality of the scores and the drama we saw in Ballybofey was as good as what we have seen in the championship to date.

In fact, the two counties served up easily the best game of the year so far. It will be hard to match it for drama and quality this season.


It was TV that you couldn’t walk away from. You were glued to it from start to finish. There was good fielding in it, there was good kicking in it and there was just all-around positive football. For a change, it was proper championship fare.

In a lot of games at this stage of the season there can be a good bit of shadow boxing going on with teams sizing one another up for large periods. One team may be stronger than the other with the weaker side knowing that they’re facing a tough day at the office. So, they’ll play accordingly.

The game on Saturday evening in Munster was an example of that. Tipperary were very defensive against Kerry and as a result Kerry did just enough to get over the line.

Donegal, a bit like Kerry and Dublin, haven't been firing on all cylinders just yet either, but I think the stronger counties just want their players to get through their provincial championships without shooting the lights out and without peaking too soon. They want their players primed for when it really matters – at the business end of the season. That's particularly important when the league is so close to the championship with hardly any break between them.

You have to remember that it's a very short season this year too and that teams are a little like racehorses. They need time to go up in trip. It's like going from a seven-furlong race to a mile-and-a-half. You cannot make that jump straight away and teams are still getting up to speed. That's the modus operandi for the bigger teams – Dublin, Kerry, Galway, Donegal, Tyrone and Mayo. They're getting themselves ready for greater tests down the line.

Quiet leaders

What essentially swung the game in Donegal’s favour was their big-game characters. Odhrán Mac Niallais played very well when he came on and Paddy McBrearty got the important score when it mattered although he had been well marked throughout the game. Cometh the hour, cometh the men.

Then, of course, Michael Murphy turned up. He always will. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of the Glenswilly man. I worked with him during an Aussie Rules series a number of years ago and, from what I could see back then, he's one of those quiet leaders that can be very effective in a squad.

He’s not banging the table. He’s one of these that is the epitome of the mantra, ‘Do as I do, not as I say’. He’d wouldn’t be telling you to do stuff that he wouldn’t do himself. You could see that on Sunday, too. He got down low when they needed him to and dug Donegal out of a hole. He’s invaluable to a side.

But Derry never went away and they were thereabouts right up to the final whistle. Ultimately, if you have quality players in tight situations, they will invariably make the right decisions at key moments of the game. And for all their efforts, Derry were just short one or two good players to get them over the line in the closing minutes.

It's a little unfair . . . in hurling you still have the luxury of that backdoor system

But they didn’t lack for endeavour. They didn’t lack for heart either. It was simply just a hard day at the office against one of the best teams in the country. Unfortunately with no backdoor system, their year is now over.

It’s a little unfair as the GAA have created a situation where in hurling you still have the luxury of that backdoor system. The hurling teams that have lost this year have a chance to regroup, to come back and to alter their approach having learned plenty on their first day out.

On Sunday, Derry and Donegal players were fighting for their season and they gave us a proper championship game as a result. It was do-or-die. There was no time for learning. Both sets of players deserve credit for what they served up and it was good to see a bit of a crowd in the stands to witness it. The only pity was there couldn't be more people in the place to enjoy the spectacle. A packed MacCumhaill Park would have been rocking.

Derry have been in the doldrums for a few years now, but they’re still stone-mad about their football in the place and you could see that again from the way they went about their business.

I remember playing against Brian McGilligan and Anthony Tohill in the middle of the field. I was only 19-years-old, about 12½ stone and I could see back then that they were mad about their football. That was after they won their All Ireland in 1993. This is the tradition these Derry players were brought up in. They were reared in that culture. But with another year behind them and their championship over, they have tough decisions to make this week.

Second option

In the ’90s when I started out, you played your league, you played your championship and when you were gone, you were gone. End of story. And once you were gone, you had a couple of options. You could always go back to your club, that was one option. If your club wasn’t strong enough, you might go abroad to America, work for the summer and have a good time with friends and all that.

But the Derry fellas don’t even have that second option this week. Because of the pandemic and everything that brings, they can only go back to their jobs.

Considering the level of fitness they got to and the level of conditioning they had, it’s harsh that they’re facing the bare sideline for the year now. It leaves the older players questioning whether they should retire or keep going. They’re after breaking their backsides training for a year through a pandemic and they would have been training on their own for a large chunk of that period as well. How much fuel have they left?

You cannot flick a switch and find your form. Chrissy McKaigue had a super game on Sunday for a guy who has been around the block for a good few years. He’s been going since 2008 but he was still able to find some form. He goes out to grass now for the summer. Will he be in the same form next year? Has he got it in him to give another year? These aren’t easy decisions to make.

I was watching the post-match punditry after the European final and I listened to the pundits talk about how the English players were apparently practising for the penalty shootout because they felt penalties could always happen in a game against Italy. And I suppose they were right about that.

These lads are taking in over 100-grand a week. All they had to do was go up and take a penalty

But they were even practising the walk-up to the penalty spot. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. These lads are taking in over a 100-grand a week. All they had to do was go up and take a penalty.

They were then talking about the English lads being in a bad place after the game. The English fellas were going home with their pockets full, getting well-paid to kick bad penalties. Our troops go home through the field after they’ve been knocked out of the championship, having broken their backsides while they were at it. Are our troops crying about it? Are they cribbing about it? Not a bit of it.

Big occasion

You had to watch the European final with our neighbours in it, and it being a big occasion and all. I just found all the excuses the pundits were making for the players a bit daft.

Look at Rory Gallagher and his players this week. They're gone for the year and they're not receiving any monetary benefit for the performance they produced. They just go home through the field and that's it. No excuses. No consoling.

England have first-world problems. We have third-world problems. Some of the English guys are probably getting counselling this week. Go up to Derry and they'll give you counselling. These guys have to go back to work. They have real-life decisions to make. They don't have time to hang around and feel sorry for themselves so it's hard not to bang the drum for the small guy which, in this case, is Derry.

The greatest pity is that their performance, along with Donegal’s, went under the radar due to events at Wembley. Because at the end of it all, the greatest show in town last weekend was in Ulster. Derry unfortunately won’t take much solace from that. They’re already back to the grind. That’s just the way it is.