Donegal’s victory tinged with sadness over news of rally driver’s death

Side lift their tenth Ulster championship title on day Manus Kelly tragically dies in rally event

Donegal’s Paddy McGrath lifts the Anglo-Celtic Cup with his daughter Isla Rose after beating Cavan in the Ulster Football Championship final in St Tiernach’s Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Photograph:  Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Donegal’s Paddy McGrath lifts the Anglo-Celtic Cup with his daughter Isla Rose after beating Cavan in the Ulster Football Championship final in St Tiernach’s Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The Ulster championship, the old theatre of hate and heartbreak, is in danger of becoming the model child of Gaelic football. A brilliant summer for the nine-county show concluded in front of a full house in Clones to witness what turned out to be the highest-scoring Ulster final ever.

There were no red cards, no rows, no parade tension, no outrages: nothing of the stuff that used to make the elders tut-tut.

Instead, Donegal defended their crown in free-flowing mode, registering 1-24 and seemingly unconcerned that Cavan, the old landlords of these provincial days, had posted 2-16 at the other end. The afternoon concluded on a familiar note: Michael Murphy raising the Anglo-Celt for the fifth time in what is a gilded football life. Donegal have had just 10 championships in their history and the Glenswilly man has been at the wheel for five of them.

However, the Donegal captain was only made aware after he left the field where thousands of supporters had gathered of the most terrible news coming through from Donegal. Manus Kelly, another celebrated son of Glenswilly, had been tragically killed while participating in the Donegal International Rally. The shocking news will deeply wound the tight Donegal community.

It was a desperately sad note on which to mark an historic fifth title in a rich decade for Murphy and Donegal. The first of those arrived out of nowhere in 2011, when Donegal were rescued and re-imagined by Jim McGuinness. Those seasons were defined by the austere battles against Tyrone, when every score kicked seemed to carry the heft of a heavyweight punch. But the years change and the game changes too. Here, the scores were falling about St Tiernach’s like confetti after a wedding. Even though Cavan assembled something of a blue wall in the first half, Donegal manipulated the shape into their liking and then found their marksmen to ease into an authoritative lead.

Spat

“They put in Gerard Smith and Ciarán Brady from the starts and took out two forwards so maybe they were hoping to stay in the game in that first half,” said Donegal manager Declan Bonner when it was over, leaning against the wall as the rain spat and thinking about this strangely rich decade for Donegal football. 1-4 from play from Jamie Brennan continues his eye-catching summer and 0-4 from play from Patrick McBrearty in the second half in a game when Donegal had 12 different scorers. You only had to see Murphy and McBrearty embracing at the final whistle to understand that this one means as much to the attacking pair as the very first.

“I said it to the lads that there was lads appearing in their eighth final and others appearing in their first,” said Bonner. Odhrán McFadden Ferry: that was his first taste of senior football today and we have real trust in those players. I’ve said it before that it is a small squad – only 29 players – and any one of those players could have come on and done a job. Five times in 10 years is brilliant.”

For Cavan, the day never took full flight. You could feel the anticipation around Cavan town from early morning and the line of billboards wishing the team look on the road over from Butlersbridge. Cavan’s performances had the pragmatism of Mickey Graham and the maturation of their successful U-21 teams. It felt like a day on which they could tap into the romance of their rich provincial tradition and do something special. But Donegal had clipped six quick points before 20 minutes had passed and their general comfort in the arena was apparent. Cavan’s threat was sporadic and at half-time they were 0-13 to 0-5 down.

Retreat

“At that stage people were probably saying what is going to happen in the second half,” said Graham. “But the lads kept going and going and you couldn’t fault their effort and there were times when we could have picked off another few scores.

“It didn’t happen. You have to be seriously proud of every one of them. They realised the position we were in at half- time. Their first time in 18 years. And as I said to them you don’t realise when you will get this chance again. Just go down fighting whatever you do anyway. Do not go into a shell and retreat and throw in the towel. And they definitely didn’t do that, anyhow.”

They didn’t. The great frustration for them was that the electric surge that they needed – Stephen Murray’s goal – arrived too late for both the Cavan crowd and team to alchemise into outright anarchy. Had they hauled Donegal to within four points with 10 minutes to play, then the occasion would have turned boisterous.

It is a nagging concern for Donegal that in their last two games, they have left their opponents trailing in their wake everywhere but on the scoreboard. As the country continues its general search for a team capable of living with All-Ireland champions Dublin on their remorseless march towards five All-Irelands, Donegal will come further into the reckoning after this. But as the rain fell in Clones and the Donegal players traipsed across the pitch for their post-match meal, it looked as if the winning of Ulster matters to them as much as ever.

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