Kevin McStay: Embracing the brilliance of the Ulster Championship

Weekend semi-finals were rip-roaring fun - Tyrone and Monaghan look very handy

Donegal’s Michael Langan is challenged  by Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Donegal’s Michael Langan is challenged by Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

I am thinking of buying a camper van and just living in Ulster next summer. I feel like I have spent the last few months touring the province, from Ballybofey to Newry and on Sunday Brewster Park in Enniskillen. The car is permanently pointed north from the house. And what a joy it has been.

I am a convert! I am an evangelist. When I played football for Mayo in the 1980s, I never understood what looked to me like the savagery of those games in the Ulster championship. We would watch the television and everyone looked angry - all the time. From a distance the spirit looked mean and hard-edged. They seemed to like it that way. But the winner then didn’t seem to have much to offer in Croke Park. Much like Connacht in that respect.

But the West was more docile than what happened in Ulster. They seemed to defy the general laws of the land.

Through commentary work, I have found myself frequently attending these games over the past decade. And I found myself becoming fascinated by what is in many ways an independent competition within the All-Ireland. You have to attend the games and the places to fully appreciate what the Ulster championship is about. It is a secret in full view.

The tradition and those simmering, thorny rivalries never dissipated. But the quality of football has also been of the highest order over the past few years. With all of this talk about a new championship structure, the Ulster scene has never been healthier.

There is a new version of Ulster says No. Why would they want a reformation? You can do what you want in the South but leave us be. It’s a perfect contest. You have six or seven viable contenders – and Antrim may well be the sleeping giant of the Northern theatre. There are storied rivalries everywhere you turn.

Stockholm Syndrome

I was laughing to myself that maybe I have developed Stockholm Syndrome. I now feel trust and affection for the games and for the officials who run the games. What has happened? Believe it or not, the Ulster council officials allowed me to park my car in the ground in Enniskillen on Sunday and not five miles outside town, which was my fate for years. I am permitted to use the facilities. I got a match programme delivered to me! This year, I managed to walk on the pitch without being ‘run’.

I don’t know why this has happened. Maybe it took time to earn the trust. I’ve been coming to Ulster games for quite some time now. A decade ago, I felt like an outsider. You wouldn’t get near the car parks. An RTÉ pass was like a provocation. In my innocence I used to wear the RTÉ jacket in the delusion that it would gain me access. I might as well have flown a Union Jack.

I feel it started when he pulled his hamstring against Monaghan in the league

Brewster Park is a gorgeous little stadium. Our commentary box for Donegal v Tyrone was like a perch. It’s a model for the ideal mid-sized stadium. I arrived early because I wanted to see how this pageant unfolded. The stewards and then the provincial officials arrived and finally the media trooped in. Funny, I was sitting in the car and I saw Mickey Harte arrive and park and turn left for the television studio rather than right for the dressingroom. It was disconcerting: it was only then I realised that the baton had been passed. And I don’t know why, I felt kind of lonely for him. Everything moves on.

But the crowd began to arrive. The heat was pulsing. It was one of those mythical championship days. And there was a real hum of anticipation among the Tyrone crowd. They sensed something.

Michael Murphy’s sending off against Tyrone felt like a moment which had been brewing for a number of weeks. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Michael Murphy’s sending off against Tyrone felt like a moment which had been brewing for a number of weeks. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

I happen to have seen Donegal a lot over the past few years. They just haven’t made it to the next level. Donegal haven’t been in the last four of the All-Ireland since 2014, when they pulled off that coup against Dublin. But Tyrone made the semi-final of 2017 and the All-Ireland final of 2018 – all the while debating whether the Harte era was over. The illusion that Donegal were the top team was just that. They flattered to deceive in winning those series of Ulster titles.

The reality on Sunday was that there was greater pressure on Donegal to perform. Time was on Tyrone’s side: a new management and a team gathering speed. Donegal are at the top of their cycle. And their worst future unfolded in the sun.

It was a glimpse of the post Murphy – and Neil McGee – future. It didn’t look very promising.

The game encapsulated what I love about Ulster. It went from simmering along, point for point, to pure chaos on the stove: everything boiling over and happening at once. As a contest, it revolved around the Murphy penalty and sending off and just spun off from there.

McGee went off with an injury after a brave intervention. But Murphy’s exit was more nuanced. To me, it was a series of small incidents that led to a catastrophic moment. I feel it started when he pulled his hamstring against Monaghan in the league. It feels like a long time ago but it was only four or five weeks since that happened. Both of those cards were a consequence of that. It was down to sharpness. There was no malice or intent in the fouls. But they attracted cards.

This is the desperate dilemma that managers face with marquee players. Do you stick or twist? Donegal’s failure to reach the next level will lead to the departure of a lot of familiar faces on the pitch and the sideline. New voices shake things up. And Donegal have probably reached that moment now.

New approach

In contrast, Tyrone had that new voice and new approach on Sunday. Were they going to show us this ambition to win it? They weren’t just hanging about to see what happened. They chased that victory. They have retained the best qualities of the Harte era: excellent conditioning and a bit of an edge. But they also had that bounce after Donegal scored their second half goal. They just seemed happier and livelier and were up for the chase.

The players whom Donegal might have hoped would step up in Murphy’s absence simply did not when the game boiled down to the last 10 minutes and was really up for grabs. Michael Langan was exceptional and Eoghan Ban Gallagher took the fight to Tyrone but their effort was conspicuous. And that was the sense in the ground: that Tyrone had the cards. They have found both new players and recycled guys like Brian Kennedy and Darren McCurry, who are enjoying a new lease of life. You could see that in the way they just grabbed the victory with energy and exuberance when the moment came.

So I feel they are arriving at their strongest team at the right time. I think we will see Conor McKenna start the Ulster final. And they have a formidable bench as well. Paul Donaghy, the star of the league, didn’t even get a trot on Sunday. The guy that scored 0-10 in the league against Donegal doesn’t get 10 seconds. Those are the hard calls that matter.

Mark Bradley, Tiernan McCann, Richard Donnelly and Cathal McShane were on the bench. Frank Burns got a late start. So Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher are plotting their way through 70 minutes and will bring a stacked bench. Will Darragh Canavan be back at the real end of the championship? Things are falling into place for them.

Monaghan’s win over Armagh was the first of two semi-final thrillers. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho
Monaghan’s win over Armagh was the first of two semi-final thrillers. Photograph: John McVitty/Inpho

So, are Tyrone the real deal? As I left the studio one of their fans asked me in good humour, “Well, do you think they are getting afraid of us now down South?” It was a decent clarion call for sure. But let’s not forget about Monaghan!

Saturday was an utter joy too. I watched the game on television. First you learn that Armagh’s goalkeeper is out with Covid and they have to start a young untested replacement – against Rory Beggan. It’s a big setback for Armagh. And bang, bang, bang, bang. Four goals for Monaghan in 20-odd minutes. The sun beating down. The game looked over. And yet Armagh were somehow two points up with a few minutes left on the clock.

It was gripping and brilliant. But a fundamental skill let the Armagh down late in the afternoon. They don’t seem to understand what a clean tackle is. They bundled in aggressively but with no guile. They left the referee no choice but to whistle for frees which Monaghan dispatched without nerves. At least make the attacking team earn those scores! It has been a repeated failing of Armagh’s. So I felt sorry for them because their fight back was heroic and Rian O’Neill gave a performance for the ages. They are progressing but they are taking a needlessly leisurely route. The danger is that they arrive to find the circus has left town.

Monaghan

What do you say about Monaghan? They are a serious bunch and a real example of a side that can get the most out of themselves. Their reward, of course, is to meet this burgeoning Tyrone team. It promises to be a great final of a truly epic Ulster championship.

The sprint for Sam became an all-island race over the weekend. It is still Dublin v Kerry but there are other voices. I think Dublin are starting to assume a mortal shape. We don’t know the velocity Kerry will assume. But I think Ulster is building week by week and Mayo or Galway will make a worthy champion of Connacht.

I will be watching my emails to see if I am on duty for the Ulster final. The request to have the game played in Croke Park makes sense for both teams. But I’ll be a bit gutted not to be heading to Clones or Armagh. It’s different up there.

After all of these years, I finally understand that.

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