Ulster Senior Football Championship
Derry v Donegal
Sunday, Clones, 4pm
By Niall McCoy
THE very fibre of the Ulster Championship has been eroding away in recent seasons, but on Sunday Derry and Donegal could produce the sort of final that could reaffirm its position as football’s provincial powerhouse.
Up north, the Anglo Celt arena has had its foundations built on the mantra that every point matters and nothing can be won easy. That particular aura has been softening.
Take the last five seasons, for example – a period that includes an outlier in the winter football of 2020 when all games were close and Cavan earned a merited Ulster title that no doubt owed something to the pandemic-affected situation.
Since 2018, a quarter of the 40 games have been won by double-digit margins. If you were to take staying within five points as a rough barometer for a match being competitive, not even half would pass the test.
The 2022 campaign has been no different. Seven games have been played and only one – Derry’s 3-12 to 0-17 semi-final win over Monaghan – has stayed within the five-point range. There have been victories by 13 points, 11 points and 10 points.
So why the fanfare about this particular final? Well, because Derry have ripped up the suggestion that the big three in Ulster – Armagh cannot realistically claim to be in this group given results in the province – are untouchable.
Since 2009, Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan have managed a dozen provincial titles between them. Cavan’s 2020 win was the other.
This will be only Derry’s second appearance since then having lost the 2011 decider to the Tir Chonaill County, who had Rory Gallagher on their coaching team as sidekick to Jim McGuinness.
Gallagher is in his third season now, and has shaken up the picture following the hammering of Tyrone and the hugely-impressive dismissal of Monaghan. There is a sense now too, that Derry can hang around that picture long term too.
It’s a progression built on a range of factors. Club success, all the way from Glen’s incredible Ulster Minor four in-a-row from 2011 to 2014 to Sleacht Néill’s domination on the provincial football and hurling stage has provided not only talent, but a constant stream of players who know how to win on the big days. Oakleaf teams have dominated at schools’ level too with six of the last 10 MacRorys heading back to the county, albeit Maghera sharing the 2020 crown with St Colman’s.
At county level, Derry have been in five of the last seven Ulster Minor finals winning three of them. They made all three Ulster U-20 finals between 2017 and 2019, winning the one in the middle. On the team that beat Armagh that day in Clones was Conor McCluskey, Padraig McGrogan, Conor Doherty and Shea Downey – players who will all have key roles this weekend.
And knitting it all together is one Rory Gallagher. His enthusiasm knows no bounds; his demands have no limits either. In his first championship game in charge of Derry in 2020, when the Oakleafers really could have upset Armagh, his barking orders were more audible than usual due to the fact that only press were allowed in due to Covid instructions.
He shouted, shouted and shouted some more, and at one stage Conor Glass, just back into the camp after returning from his AFL stint in Australia, cracked and shouted right back.
The big Glen midfielder hadn’t had the time to adapt to Gallagher’s methods. When Gallagher shouts at him this weekend, and you’ll still probably hear it even with crowds back in, there’ll be no return of fire from one of his on-field generals.
For Donegal, the focus on Derry will suit them down to the ground. Their opponents are the more interesting story after all. But there is a job to do, one they have done very well in recent times. The Tir Chonaill County have won 10 Ulster titles, half of those have arrived from 2011 onwards.
Bonner said this week that the final won’t be decided until the home straight, and maybe he was speaking from experience having watched Joe Brolly goal in the final moments to deny him an Ulster title in his first stint as Donegal boss back in 1998. Those kisses to the crowd probably still rankle.
Donegal were heavily invested in their Ulster opener with Armagh as disputes over red cards, appeals and a general bit of bite in the lead up ramped up the pressure. On the day, bar five minutes at the start of the second half, the home side ruled in Ballybofey with Paddy McBrearty’s goal early in the second half killing off the contest.
The semi-final against Cavan was more of a struggle and ironic then that Donegal, a team famed for their rigidness and lack of deviation from the plan, would kill off the contest through two fluky high balls.
Only a point separated the sides in the 61st minute when a pointed attempt was punched away by Raymond Galligan and onto the foot of Conor O’Donnell who instinctively side-footed home. It was déjà vu seven minutes later as another pointed effort fell short and into the hands of McBreaty who blasted home.
Derry have kept a clean sheet in seven of their nine games this year, although they did give up four goals in their Division Two capitulation against Galway. Donegal have found the net in six of their nine games. Something has to give.
If Derry were to prevail on Sunday and lift the famous trophy for the first time since that day when Brolly blew kisses in the rain, it would arguably be the most hard-fought Ulster ever won. They’d take down not only three Division One teams, but the three counties who have dominated this competition for a decade in a time when the strong seem to only get stronger.
Donegal though carry with them so much experience and poise. They edged last year’s quarter-final meeting between the neighbours, and they can edge this final too. Here’s hoping that it’s within five points no matter who prevails.
READ MORE – Derry v Monaghan. Click here…
READ MORE – Donegal v Cavan analysis. Click here…