Old Ulster is dead. In other decades, Donegal came and went like mayflies in the northern theatre but yesterday they won the Anglo-Celt Cup for the third time in four years. In doing so, they avenged last year's brilliant coup by Monaghan.
It was a clammy full-house here of 31, 912 – and the stewards declared that they could have sold another 8,000 tickets – with not a breath of wind in the old park.
Blood and dust was the order of the day; the superb point-taking of Patrick McBrearty and the sweet, streetwise running game of the latest McHugh to star for Donegal were among the more refined pleasures.
Donegal led from the first bell until the last and Monaghan got inside their shirts but not their minds here.
It finished 0-15 to 1-9, wartime rationing in comparison to the sumptuous scoreline which drifted towards mid-Ulster from Croke Park.
But none of that mattered. This was local in every sense. The Donegal men celebrated almost as fiercely as they played: it was clear that this afternoon was about deeper than the prize on offer.
Maybe it was the rush in the aftermath but when Jim McGuinness was asked about the importance of the game in the bedlam of the tunnel afterwards, he said he felt that this triumph exceeded even the All-Ireland win of 2012.
“I think it’s our best victory in terms of the questions that were being asked of us and what was being said about us, and had the boys got the stomach for it. I think they proved today. I think it’s our best victory because of the circumstances and because what surrounded it.
“We went into the All-Ireland final after winging Ulster, beating Kerry and beating Cork and we won our All-Ireland.
“Here, we were absolutely wrote off a week out from the Derry match and we’re Ulster champions today. We were demoralised in Croke Park in the quarter-final last year. So to go from that point to put in a performance . . .”
His words trailed off. If placing a third Ulster title in four seasons over the sacred triumph of an All-Ireland title seems contrary, it has to be placed in context. When Donegal were emphatically relieved of their Ulster and All-Ireland titles last summer, they were dismissed as yesterday’s news. A change in the backroom team last October was interpreted as evidence of an unhappy camp.
The spring departure of Mark McHugh, the brightest star during Donegal’s emergent news, was offered as final evidence that the usual discontent had returned to the Northwest. But yesterday evening, Ryan McHugh rapped his palms off the low roof in delight as he made his back to the victorious dressing room after 70 razor-sharp minutes. He has an Ulster medal now to match his father Martin’s and the two his absent brother has.
No Donegal team had beaten a Monaghan championship outfit since McHugh seniors’ bunch did so in the blazing summer of 1983. This was the first time Monaghan lost a match in Clones in 16 games.
The park on the hill has been a charm for them but Donegal left no room for voodoo here: they were organised, ravenous and composed from beginning to end. Even after Chris McGuinness rattled their nerves with a brilliant goal from nothing in the 50th minute, Donegal tapped into the memory bank. They stuck with the plan. They fired off three in a row. The rebellion paled.
“That’s right, the goal got us right back in the game and we wanted to push on at that stage and take the opportunity,” said a downcast Malachy O’Rourke.
Instead, they got tangled up in web. Chief among Monaghan’s persecutors during that period was Patrick McBrearty. The Kilcar pure shooter didn’t start but responded to the disappointment by landing three heartbreakers from down field.
“Nah, whatever Jim decides you have to deal with it,” he shrugged happily about receiving news of his demotion.
“This is his fourth year and he has not been wrong yet. Jim came up to me this morning and he said to me: you will get on and I said ‘Whatever you think, Jim’. and I was glad to be able to come on and help the team get the victory.”
Monaghan were up for this but couldn’t summon up the magical fusion of opportunism, courage and divine point-taking with which they claimed the championship last year.
They simply couldn't score enough and despite storming games from Vinny Corey, Drew Wylie and Paul Finlay, their day had the feel of a prize-fighter determined to see out the rounds.
And blows, accidental or otherwise, were traded, with Eamonn McGee departing in a spectacular fountain of blood only to return for the tense last closing seconds.
Afterwards, McGuinness wrapped his long arms around his back room men, all three of them team-mates from the era when Donegal habitually lost these showpieces.
“Delighted for Paul McGonagle, Damien Diver and John Duffy. They’ve waited a long time for this. They’ve won their Ulster championship now. I’m not sure how many they’ve lost between them – it must be close to 15 but they’ve got their hands on it now. It’s fantastic.”
If the respective provincial champions win their quarter-finals, then All-Ireland champions Dublin will meet Donegal in an All-Ireland semi-final.
The very idea smacks of a Cold War summit. Dublin’s style of torrential scoring and champagne afternoons versus Donegal’s faith in austere honesty and lightning raids. This era of football probably needs a meeting between the counties.
But that’s for other days. As the evening lights came on in Clones, it was back to the future for Donegal.