HomeFootballDonegal persistence prevails as Armagh pay penalty again

Donegal persistence prevails as Armagh pay penalty again

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Ulster SFC final: Donegal 0-20, Armagh 0-20 (AET. Donegal win 6-5 on penalties)

The Donegal players, having been through an ‘annus horribilis’ that was shared by the county across a number of fronts, only had eyes for one man to take them forward.

Standing in a crowded Clones tunnel surrounded by delirious Donegal supporters, Jim McGuinness reflected on the gravitational pull that took him back to where he didn’t think he’d go.

“They never left me alone and that constantly pulls at you emotionally because you are sitting in the house going, ‘Could you make a difference?’” he said.

“I was on a different trajectory myself. I was walking away from a part of my life [soccer coaching] that I put a lot into. And I want to go back to [that] some day. I’m not actively working at the minute, so you have that scenario running in your head. Eventually, Paddy McBrearty broke me!”

A little less than 11 months on, Donegal are Ulster champions for an 11th time, their first such success in five years – for McGuinness, a fourth in five attempts.

Where he has taken them from this time was probably a deeper hole than where he took them from in 2010. The county was in chaos, broken in many respects by matters on and of the field.

So to thread through an Ulster Championship with three Division 1 teams in their way was perhaps more challenging, and more rewarding, than any of the previous three.

“Time will tell how you feel about it. The first one is very special, this is quite special too,” he acknowledged.

The joy was no less pronounced that it was won on a penalty shoot-out when the two teams couldn’t be separated after 100 or so absorbing minutes.

But for Armagh, the pain is compounded by the fact that this was a fourth penalty shoot-out loss in three seasons that they have experienced. How could any group of players endure such an experience on repeat? In the end, it looked they were almost immune to the pain.

Both sides despatched their first five penalties – Ciarán Thompson, Aaron Doherty, Michael Langan, Jason McGee and Dara Ó Baoill for Donegal; Shane McPartlan, Oisín Conaty, Conor Turbitt, Aidan Nugent and Tiernan Kelly for Armagh.

But in sudden death Armagh blinked first, with Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton saving from McPartlin second time around after Doherty had scored first.

Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney could have no complaints about those who stood up this time. And this time they had a more regular ’keeper on their line, Blaine Hughes. But he never got close to stopping one.

“Shane Mac [McPartlan] is probably the best penalty-taker in the team, and of all people,” reflected McGeeney.

But even the coolest heads and crispest strikers can clam up in these moments when the weight of recent history is so stacked against you.

​“When you lose four or five massive games where we’ve been on the bad end of it, it is difficult and there’s no point in saying otherwise. We can’t do much about it,” said McGeeney.

Except they might have, especially when they went four points clear by the 50th minute, 0-15 to 0-11, at a time when Donegal looked to be running out of ideas. But for the last 23 minutes, including three of added time, Armagh didn’t score.

There was no clear reference point to suggest how or why it turned against them as it did. Donegal got fresh legs on quicker, but at the time Armagh players were filling their lungs with air. They were on top, absorbing all of Donegal’s weakening shots.

Then Niall O’Donnell swung over a second beauty from close to the sideline. It was a difficult kick for a right-footed kicker, made more difficult by the tricky underfoot conditions after a downpour around the 25th minute.

Minutes earlier, he had closed the previous four-point deficit, 0-13 to 0-9, with an equally sublime score, this time off the outside of the right. In any reflection, O’Donnell’s intervention in these moments, will grow in importance. To break Armagh down, it had to be something special in that period.

Prior to that, it had been Oisín Gallen leading the charge, enjoying a shoot-out of sorts with Conor Turbitt at the other end.

They both finished with four points from play, Gallen scored two frees, before being withdrawn.

Armagh switching Aaron McKay on to Gallen had an impact after Paddy Burns had picked him up early on.

The accuracy from Gallen and Turbitt mirrored the general economy from both sides – 19 from 24 first-half shots converted – even after the downpour.

Armagh led by 0-10 to 0-9 at half-time, but they had been level six times. A feature was how quick the response was from both to a score. It was as if they came in pairs. Best not to linger.

In that third quarter, Turbitt, Oisín Conaty, Rian O’Neill, from a mark, and Stefan Campbell pushed Armagh on.

Around the ground, their support in the 28,896 crowd sensed the time had come for their team.

​But reluctance crept in and it manifested itself most when two marks were claimed, by Jarlath Óg Burns and Campbell, that went backwards. Difficult kicks distance-wise, but why not have a go?

A raft of other shots came up short. McGeeney recalled a Conaty effort that was half-blocked when the gap was four points, sensing that as a turning point. But there was no real fork in the road. Donegal just did what they had done against Tyrone. They persisted in a way that resonated with their manager.

“The fact we were four points down in a massive game and were able to respond, that’s the big one for us. They’ve done that a few times now,” he said.

They were locked at 0-15 each at the end of normal time, but rather than dip, as teams generally do in extra-time, they both opened up more. Certainly, 10 points suggested renewed energy.

Again, Armagh forged ahead, 0-18 to 0-17, at the end of the first period and then by 0-20 to 0-18 through Oisín O’Neill and Aidan Nugent, who had added spark on his introduction,

But Donegal had relentless runners all evening and eventually Dara Ó Baoill and Odhran Doherty, with a score just as audacious as Niall O’Donnell’s first, brought it level again.

In an interview on the big screen beforehand, Armagh’s Paddy Burns, asked about his team’s prospects, replied with a question, ‘If not now, when?’

It never feels more relevant than now.

Scorers – Donegal: O Gallen 0-6 (2f); N O’Donnell, S O’Donnell, P McBrearty (1f), D Ó Baoill, P Mogan 0-2 each; M Langan, J McGee, J MacCalllbhuí, O Doherty 0-1 each. Armagh: C Turbitt 0-4; A Nugent (1f) 0-3; A Murnin, O Conaty, S Campbell, B Crealey (1m) 0-2 each; R O’Neill (m), R Grugan, A Forker, O O’Neill, C Mackin 0-1 each.

Donegal: S Patton 7; M Curran 5, B McCole 7, C Moore 6; P Mogan 8, R McHugh 6, C McGonagle 7; EB Gallagher 5, J McGee 7; M Langan 7, S O’Donnell 7, C Thompson 6; D Ó Baoill 6, O Gallen 8, N O’Donnell 8. Subs: C McColgan 6 for Curran (h-t), P McBrearty 6 for Moore (42), A Doherty 6 for Ó Baoill (46), J Brennan 6 for Gallagher (55), J MacCeallbhuí 6 for Thompson (67), O Doherty 7 for Gallen (72), D O Baoill for N O’Donnell (80), C Thompson for McBrearty (87).

Armagh: B Hughes 7; P Burns 6, A McKay 7, P McGrane 6; J McElroy 6, C Mackin 7, A Forker 6; G McCabe 6, R O’Neill 7; B Crealey 7, R Grugan 8, O Conaty 7; S Campbell 8, A Murnin 7, C Turbitt 8. Subs: J Óg Burns 6 for McCabe (55), A Nugent 7 for Turbitt (67), T Kelly 6 for Forker (70+1), O O’Neill 7 for Crealey (66), J Duffy 6 for McElroy (e-t), J Hall for McGrane (79), S McPartlan for Mackin (80), C Turbitt for R O’Neill (85).

Referee: M McNally (Monaghan)

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