HomeFootballKieran Shannon: This year's Ulster final was the best in more than...

Kieran Shannon: This year’s Ulster final was the best in more than two decades

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After Sunday’s Ulster football final, Jim McGuinness told reporters that the previous evening his team had gathered in a hotel where the broadband was obviously decent and they watched the Cork-Limerick hurling game live on GAAGO.

“It was amazing, amazing,” he said. “A brilliant way to set us up for the weekend. Fellas leaving it all out there.” The compliment could have been returned by Pat Ryan or anyone else who took in the game McGuinness’s side had just edged. For Donegal-Armagh was amazing too. Amazing. A brilliant way to wrap up a terrific weekend for Gaelic games. Fellas leaving it all out there.

Within minutes of the whistle sounding in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Denis Walsh, author of the classic Hurling: The Revolution Years, declared, “Forget everything you heard about great games in the past; cancel the mythology: a better hurling game than this is unimaginable.” 

Think about that for a moment. Walsh has been in the press box for 35 years and keenly studied the 55 that preceded it, having due reverence for Ring, Rackard et all. He literally wrote the book on the game’s golden age. And yet in all his time covering the sport, from Cork-Tipp when Nicky English was playing, to Clare-Tipp when English was managing, all the way through to Cork-Waterford and Kilkenny-Tipp, nothing could top what Cork and Limerick served up in May 2024.

Clones similarly had us reaching for the archives as well as superlatives. When has there been a better Ulster football final?

The fixture has more than had its share of close games. Sunday was the second straight year it went to penalties, the third that it required extra-time. The year before that – Tyrone-Monaghan in Croke Park – only a point separated the teams.

But this was more than close or intriguing or compelling, often bywords for matches in this province in which there’s been little between the sides yet little to enthuse the casual neutral.

This was thrilling. A spectacle, with spectacular point-taking, yet all the better for not quite being a shootout.

We’ve seen some splendid outside shooting before on Ulster final day. In 2016, Seán Cavanagh and Peter Harte kicked monstrous long-range points in injury time to deliver Tyrone their first Anglo-Celt in six years. Donegal’s Ryan McHugh and Odhrán Mac Niallais put on an exhibition of distance shooting the same day.

Yet the final score was still only 13-11. For all the shots from distance that went over, even more were missed or declined. With how both teams were defensively set up, to shoot from range was to gamble and though your numbers would sometimes come up on the wheel, the house that was the massed defence wasn’t going to lose.

Last Sunday both teams had bodies behind the ball yet that did not dictate, or at least foil, either offence. The tone was set by Aidan Forker taking on a shot in the opening minute with his left foot from over 30 yards, scoring, hopping and fisting the air: let’s be having you! Which was fine with Oisin Gallen, only for Conor Turbitt to see him and raise him another couple of white flags further. On and on it went: a Daire Ó Baoill boomer; a Ben Crealey curler on the run. Murnin. O’Donnell. Grugan.

Not since the 2019 Dublin-Kerry All Ireland final replay has there has been as a better standard of first-half long-range point-scoring from two teams (Kerry-Dublin was 10-10 at the break that day, all but two scores coming from play; Armagh-Donegal was 10-9, all but two scores coming from play).

True, for both teams to continue to shoot over 80 percent from the field was neither sustainable nor sustained, especially with the ball and surface being that bit greasier from the downpour shortly before halftime. But some of the scores Armagh kicked in the third quarter to go four ahead and Donegal kicked in the fourth quarter to draw level and both sides then kicked in extra-time were of a standard the ground simply hasn’t seen before.

We can’t think of a better goalless game of football either. All the classics the sport has offered before: invariably, as Michael O’Hehir proclaimed towards the end of probably the best of the lot, there was a goal, there was a goal. Here all the goals were reserved for the penalty shootout. But yet we were none the poorer for the first 90 minutes failing to raise a green flag.

To answer our original question so: when has there been a better Ulster final? Not since 2003 anyway, when Dan Gordon and Benny Coulter had Tyrone in all kinds of bother only for Mickey Harte’s side to come from nine points down and earn a draw (1-17 to 4-8).

And even as breathtaking an affair as that was, 2024 shades it. That Down-Tyrone (like Fermanagh-Armagh in 2008) were afforded a replay might have been fairer but Donegal-Armagh 2024 is superior for its finality. Both Tyrone in ’03 and Armagh in ’08 comfortably won those replays, diluting the memory and intensity of those sagas as a whole. Donegal-Armagh 2024 will be forever etched in the memory precisely because of how painstaking losing it was for Armagh.

A further flick through the history pages suggests there were some fun Ulster final days back when an Anglo-Celt was all a team from the province could realistically aspire for. In 1980 Armagh saw off Tyrone 4-10 to 4-7. In 1976 Derry shaded Cavan in a replay, 0-22 to 1-16, after extra-time. In 1974 Donegal beat Down in a replay, 3-9 to 1-12. In 1971 Down won a goalfest, pipping Derry 4-15 to 4-11. Each of those Ulster champions lost their subsequent All Ireland semi-final, on average by eight points, to teams that would then lose the final.

Earlier than that and you’re back to when any TV you had was black and white to look for an Ulster final that was better than last Sunday’s.

One other striking feature about last Sunday’s game is one not always associated with the venue or the province. The sportsmanship throughout the match, and in the aftermath of it, was exemplary.

It was personified by Niall O’Donnell. About 15 minutes into the second half he received a ball under the Gerry Arthur Stand. Ben Crealey shadowed him to the wing, denying him the option of cutting in on his left and almost daring him to shoot on the touchline with his right. Which O’Donnell did, from 35 yards, prompting the umpire to reach for the white flag, O’Donnell to playfully shoulder Crealey and the pair of them to grin.

After the game O’Donnell offered one of our standout quotes of the year. Armagh when it comes to penalties, he’d tell BBC NI upon receiving their man of the match award, “They’re just not for them.” In a way it was damning – you can see him someday after a big win up in Croke Park saying, “Mayo and All Irelands, they’re just not for them” – but that comment and the rest of his interview was laced with sympathy.

McGuinness also spoke about his admiration and empathy for Armagh before he spoke about his own team’s delight and achievement, reciprocating the gracious interactions he and Kieran McGeeney had either side of the penalty shootout.

Armagh got some calls wrong on Sunday. Their middle third players were bound to tire yet they’d wait until the 60th minute – by which time Donegal had made four substitutions – to make their first. And they visibly seemed to not so much baulk at the sight of the finishing line but slow down for fear of tripping and falling short of it.

They lost again on penalties but they failed better on penalties: they’ve been criticised in some quarters for not making any interventions on this count but there are signs that they have. Against Galway in 2022 they lost 4-1 on spot kicks. Against Derry last year it was 3-1. Against Monaghan in Croker it was 9-8. That day they had a penalty-taker who missed twice. On Sunday they had one who missed once. The trick now is for their goalkeeper to save one or two before their opponent’s does.

Or not let it go to penalties at all, of course.

Either way, they contributed to a classic last Sunday. Provincial finals weren’t still meant to move us like this one did.

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