Rainy Days in Clones When Giants of Ulster Meet

There’s a sweetness in beating the favourites. All the more so when they’re not just favourites, but you can’t even get a price on your own men.

Clones was wet yesterday. Not just a soft Irish rain, but an irritable, crappy wetness that didn’t want to go away. The clouds would clear a little between the showers, fitful rays of sunshine would peek through, but they only succeeded in reminding you how cold and wet it was on what should be a fine June day.

The rain held off, just about, until the anthem was finished, not sung as much as whispered in the cold. The play matched the weather, grumpy and ill tempered. Two defences circling each other, niggling and frustrated by greasy grass and a slippery football. But whatever gods were watching smiled on Donegal, and guided the ball wide enough times to keep a tired looking team in touch.

“The ruin is raining the game,” one of the commentators on BBC observed at one stage.

The rain stopped maybe ten minutes before half time, but the frayed nerves took longer to recover. Eoin Mulligan and Niall McCready had been engaged in a personal feud for much of the half, and after flooring Mulligan in a late tackle that never looked like it had anything to do with playing the ball, McCready was sent off for pulling Mulligan to the ground.

The sun shone bright at half time, and while we watched the schoolkids play each other, McEniff cast dark spells in the dressing room. What exactly he said we’re not sure, only a few pieces have ben made public: his injunction to “keep your hands down and your mouths shut”; his rhetorical question, “can any of you put your hand up and say you played well.”

No doubt McEniff pointed out the obvious. The HQ decision to move the Ulster final to Croke Park, anticipating a Tyrone/Armagh final. Tyrone players who last week were already speaking about the final against Armagh. Down to fourteen men. Written off.

Whatever his exact words, Donegal emerged from the dressing room bent on revenge. Hands down. Mouths shut. Best foot forward. The second half began with a team on fire. The improved weather matched the raised spirits, the fans put full voice behind them, and instead of fighting total football with more of the same, Donegal reverted to their own fast running game, passing the red and white shirts in columns.

A point to bring us level. Two points. Three points. Four. Voices in the stands starting to crack, eyes glancing nervously at scoreboard and watch. There’s still twenty minutes to go, and only fourteen men.

“We need a goal,” I said out loud, and I swear McFadden heard me, because seconds later he drilled the ball into the back of the net.

Memories went back to 1992, and fourteen men against Derry in Clones. But back in 1992, Derry weren’t All-Ireland champions, and they hadn’t hammered us in the McKenna Cup a few months earlier.

Twenty minutes to go. Twenty minutes watching them stay in front, not closing the hatches but coming forward, relentless, charging, blocking and chasing, owning midfield. Watching a new configuration take shape in Donegal, Ed Sweeney moved back to the 50 as a half forward, Devanney handing off from the wings before Stephen Cassidy took over, Christy Toye and McFadden unstoppable.

Donegal 1-11. Tyrone 0-9

Some days, the rainy days are good.

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