It was greeted with warm applause. And although the Donegal support didn’t know it at the time, the Letterkenny native’s place on the podium was to be the loudest they’d get to show their affection all day.
At that point, Donegal and Monaghan were gridlocked at 0-4 each in a sterile Allianz League Division 1 encounter. Those of a green and gold persuasion weren’t overly concerned, on the face of it.
Their side had performed reasonably well against the wind and their renowned abilities in the third quarter — a characteristic that Donegal under Rory Gallagher possess as much as Donegal under Jim McGuinness — had already reaped victories over Derry and Cork this spring.
Monaghan, though, had come with a plan. To begin with, their policy of camping inside their 45-metre line, even with a gusty wind at their back, seemed curious.
But Malachy O’Rourke played Donegal the Donegal way, and the longer the match went on, the better the plan seemed to work.
“Defeat today wouldn’t have meant a relegation battle,” the Monaghan manager said afterwards. “We go out and try to take every game on its merits; we try and get a performance in all the games and try to win them all.
“There are a lot of teams on the same number of points and it is all to play for, at both ends of the division. We were delighted with the character they showed today, the way they bounced back after last week.”
The week before, Monaghan were demolished 3-15 to 0-11 by Mayo in Castlebar, where Stephen Gallogly and Ryan Wylie were given straight reds and subsequent one-match suspensions.
Monaghan patched up and sat tight. From seeming to crack the code with three unanswered points inside the first 10 minutes, the hosts lost their way. Donegal are most comfortable when they are in possession and have the composure to wait their opportunity.
But with claustrophobia gripping, Monaghan wouldn’t vacate their defensive shell and Gallagher’s side just shifted the ball one way and then another. It was tedious and not tranquil.
Monaghan were level at half-time, with Paul Finlay’s two frees supplemented by scores from play by Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus, who returned from a hip and groin injury only to be black-carded for an incident with Eamon McGee at the end of the first half.
All Donegal managed in that time-frame was a collection of frees from Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty.
The wind seemed to change direction at the start of the second half.
Michael Murphy’s goal on 46 minutes was untidy, although it was in keeping with the complexion of the game, with the skipper slapping past Rory Beggan following a ball from Neil Gallagher.
It put the side managed by Rory Gallagher two points in front — a notable cushion in such circumstances — at 1-4 to 0-5. Neil Gallagher’s effort looked to have hung up in the wind, a factor that had seen a couple of Odhran MacNiallais efforts and one from Colm McFadden collected by Beggan.
But Monaghan, when the tide might’ve turned against them, stood firm. Finlay popped over two frees to level at 0-7 to 1-4 at the stage when it was Donegal and not their guests that were expected to kick on. Sometimes there are close-run things that neither side deserves to lose — this game was one that neither might’ve deserved to win.
Perhaps it was fitting that a goalkeeper and a defender settled it. A free from Rory Beggan and Fintan Kelly’s point sealed the win for Monaghan against a Donegal side whose only score from play was Murphy’s goa. For Gallagher, it was a pointless exercise.
“We just couldn’t get through Monaghan,” admitted the Donegal manager said. “We were too lateral and conservative the way we played the game.
“Monaghan’s tails were up and they deserved the win. They were the more intense team.”
Scorers for Donegal: M Murphy 1-3 (0-3f), P McBrearty 0-1f.
Scorers for Monaghan: P Finlay 0-4f, R Beggan 0-1f, F Kelly, D Malone, C McManus, K Hughes 0-1 each.
Subs for Donegal: A Thompson and M McElhinney for Doherty and Toye (half-time), C McFadden for Lacey (37), D McLaughlin for McBrearty (54), E McHugh for E McGee (55), G McFadden for MacNiallais (69).
Subs for Monaghan: T Kerr for McManus (27 black card), O Duffy for McKenna (48), D Clerkin for McAdam (66).
Referee: B Cassidy (Derry).