27 May 2022

An alternative view: Returning to Clones and finally shushing the Cavanman

Donegal were back at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones for the first time since 2019 and, although far from perfect, continued their fantastic run in Ulster in recent times, as Alan Foley watched on

An alternative view: Returning to Clones and finally shushing the Cavanman

Peader Mogan of Donegal during the Ulster SFC semi-final against Cavan

Ever tried Marmite? No? Me neither. It’s this kinda dark brown paste yeast extract type of thing that comes in a yellow-stickered jar that looks a bit like Bovril.

It’s gooey and sticky and you’re advised to use it like butter on toast, say, or pop it into a stew, or - heaven forbid - blob it onto poached eggs.

For those in the know, it’s said to divide opinions right down the middle. Basically, you either love it or you hate it.
Clones as a venue for Ulster championship encounters is said to be similar. It polarises opinions.

Sure, it can be a sea of colour from the different sets of supporters and there is some sort of rustic charm about the Monaghan venue, although the journey to and from it can be something of a dredge. Basically, you either love it or you hate it.

For Donegal supporters of a certain vintage, for years St Tiernach’s Park was a place of missed opportunities, stemming perhaps from the mud-caked surrender of the All-Ireland against Derry in the quagmire in 1993.

Barring the odd scalp here and there, until Jim McGuinness took charge of the county seniors ahead of the 2011 season, it was the graveyard of many a summer’s dream.

Since then though, Donegal’s record in Ulster football is exceptional. If you consider in the six years from 2005 up to and including 2010, they managed to win only three times in the competition, since McGuinness, Rory Gallagher and Declan Bonner took over, Donegal have amassed 33 victories in 12 seasons.

To put that into perspective, in that same timeframe, second-placed Monaghan have 17 triumphs, while Tyrone in third have 13. Armagh have four and Derry’s victory over the All-Ireland champions two weeks ago was only their fourth. Of course lots of those encounters took place away from Clones.

But seeing it’s the spiritual home of Ulster football, it’s certainly become a lot more bearable for Donegal supporters who had build only unpleasant memories of a town that named a park after former FAI CEO John Delaney, are believed to still accept punt as legal tender and had couple of notable boxers including world champion Barry McGuigan and that McBride lad who beat Mike Tyson.

Seeing three years had passed since Donegal even featured at the venue - the 2019 Ulster final against Cavan - you’d be forgiven for missing the place, so, with the sun high overhead and the streets lined with people, there was a sense of real championship at last.

It was all such a marked contrast to the 2020 Ulster final, which was contested at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh, under lights, in November, with only a scattering of ground staff, media and anyone involved with the official parties of Cavan and Donegal.

In different times, there was no sense of real championship with echoes ringing about after players arrived in cars on their own. Lockdown did strange things to people who might not have been all that strange beforehand. In the lead-up to that 2020 final, I unwittingly came across ‘The Cavanman’s Diaries’ in the local Anglo Celt newspaper.

Its author, sports editor Paul Fitzpatrick, gave a fascinating, yet jovial insight into the unique species that are the Cavan supporters.

“The primary defining characteristic is sorrowful nostalgia and bewilderment at how things got so bad,” he wrote.
“The thing is, the time we pine for, well, it’s a folk memory now. If you are 82 years of age, you have seen Cavan win five Ulster titles in your adult life. If you are 36, like me, you’ve seen them win back-to-back-matches in the Ulster Championship twice as a grown-up – 2013 and this year.

“There are five stages to the grieving process but as a more advanced sort of human being, the Cavanman skips denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance and moves straight to anger, a process sort of like drawing the jail card in a game of Monopoly.”

Before 2020, Cavan had won one Ulster - under Martin McHugh in 1997- since the record 39 racked up before the swingin’ sixties had ended, with about three-quarters of their population still claiming to have the match ball from the 1947 All-Ireland final at the Polo Grounds.

But Cavanman’s optimism going into the 2020 Ulster final was, dare it be said, uncharacteristically upbeat, with Fitzpatrick lining out a series of reasons why Donegal might not be the unbackable favourites many thought they were.

If truth be told, I’ve shed most of them from the memory bank, although can still recall the scars of standing outside the dormant Athletic Grounds before expressing the fact the column had miffed me into thinking I was fully behind the probability of an upset.

That Cavanman? Nothing but a hoooeeer, as the say. So, in preparation for last Sunday’s clash of the sides, it was thought best to delete The Anglo Celt from the internet browser, maybe even block Paul on Twitter and focus on the positives of Donegal’s season so far.

In a rare double-header, Donegal and Cavan’s curtain-raiser was a meeting of Donegal and Cavan, in the YG4 Ulster Senior Ladies Championship semi-final.

Even without the injured Karen Guthrie, Maxi Curran’s side put in a comprehensive showing with Niamh McLaughlin excelling with Premier League ball-playing abilities, Susanne White from Killybegs having a first championship start she could only have dreamt of with two goals and three points and Geraldine McLaughlin keeping the scoreboard ticking over in the 3-19 to 1-11 win.

Defensively, Donegal looked sturdy against a side who had put 2-17 past them at the same stage last year. They pressed the kick-outs while Yvonne Bonner nonchalantly rounded goalkeeper Elaine Walsh for the third goal, even apologising to the umpire she’d bumped into in doing so.

It means Donegal are in a fifth Ulster final in six years - a fine stat considering 2015 was Donegal’s first ever provincial title at senior level.

At one stage, the stadium announcer in Clones, Eamon McMahon from Antrim, told us that Cavan were replacing Zara Fay with Chris Conroy, who, last time I checked, was on the men’s panel.

Onto the men and with Conroy definitely involved here, albeit among the substitutes, Cavan started impressively. You know the way that Mayo fans have that indelible shrieking sound that nobody else has, Cavan have a kinda defiant “Gwaaan,” which could be heard from the second Thomas Galligan won referee Conor Lane’s throw-in; then heard even louder when full-forward Paddy Lynch pointed after barely 15 seconds.

There might’ve been a penalty inside of 90 seconds, with Hugh McFadden challenging Gearóid McKiernan, who may have got the award had he kept the ball in hand. “Seen them given, so I did,” was the fair enough consensus. Cavan were well tuned in. Nobody more so than their wily manager Mickey Graham, who you suspect would have about three Champion’s League triumphs were he managing Manchester City.

“How the hell were these bucks in Division 4?” was muttered, with that lowly status meaning the Breffni County were without the safetynet of the qualifiers, with the introduction of the new Tailteann Cup.

For an organisation that refused to link the league and championship since before the continents had formed, doing so on the back of the paused 2020 campaign and regional play-offs that the 2021 league essentially was, maybe the GAA could’ve left it a year or two.

Cavan’s traditional way of playing - strong in the tackle, breaking at pace and hitting early ball in - was causing Donegal some bother. Looking anything but a Tailteann Cup side, they were kicking some exceptional scores.
Lynch was on fire inside and Galligan and James Smith at centre-field provided a platform.

It would’ve been a step too far to say Donegal were clinging on, but their unrest was proof that Bonner’s pre-match talking-up of Cavan wasn’t some sort of psychological warfare.

Donegal, whose main source of energy was coming from the standout Eoghan Ban Gallagher with his brilliant acceleration, were being dictated to. Jamie Brennan was cool in the pressure-cooker and for all their faults, there were a number of Donegal attacks that were constructed in a decent enough manner before incompletion late on.

Stephen McMenamin was doing a manful job on McKiernan and Shaun Patton’s fingertip save from a Smith’s rasper was top-class, with Cavan rapping the crossbar when they could’ve ripped the net. Half-time at 0-9 to 0-9 wasn’t at all bad for Donegal in the circumstances, with the general theory at the interval behind the Gerry Arthurs Stand being that if they fronted up a bit more, made use of the breeze and the bench, then they should have enough. We’d heard that before, though.

Donegal opened the second half better, although were still tethering between a point up and level when Conor O’Donnell came onto the field 56 minutes and 40 seconds in. Exactly two minutes later, O’Donnell steered home the opening goal, adjusting his feet in a flash to score after a Brennan miscue at a point had fallen into the Cavan square where Michael Murphy was lurking.

It gave Donegal a 1-15 to 0-14 lead, which was the point of no return for Cavan. A second goal arrived not long after, when Patrick McBrearty smashed past Raymond Galligan as Niall O’Donnell’s off-balanced ball fell his way.

More by accident than design, Donegal had created and more by design than accident Donegal had scored two goals that ultimately made the difference in a contest that ended 2-16 to 0-16. The inside trio of Murphy, Brennan and McBrearty kicked a very healthy 1-13.

Cavan had nine points and one wide after 25 minutes, so Donegal’s defence and midfield - certainly boosted by the introductions of Odhrán McFadden Ferry and Caolan McGonagle - limited their concession to just seven more scores over the guts of 50 minutes, give or take.

Without getting into the ‘Murphy should always be on the edge of the square’ debate, when the skipper is inside, those diagonal, over the full-back’s shoulder balls, are surely something Donegal should use more of, especially with gunslingers like Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson, for example.

Donegal will always use a running game, with Peadar Mogan, Ryan McHugh and Gallagher, so the variety in long and short should provide another avenue.

That thought is for another day - Ulster final day on Sunday fortnight - which will be Donegal’s 10th in 12 years. Cavan were, like the Marmite - gooey and sticky - and Clones, the more you think about it, maybe it isn't so bad. It was good to be back.

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