The sight of DUP leader Arlene Foster walking through the gates of St Tiernach’s Park half an hour before throw-in meant this 130th Ulster senior football final would always hold a significant status in the game’s annals but that’s where its real significance will begin and end.
Arlene Foster today became the first DUP leader to attend an Ulster GAA football final. She crossed the border to see her native Fermanagh take on neighbours Donegal in Clones | Read more: https://t.co/zM37q01VJd pic.twitter.com/sGLN422jeq— RTÉ News (@rtenews) June 24, 2018
There was to be no historic first senior provincial title for Foster’s countymen. Not even the sniff of it. The only hint of sulphur was gone before the parade ended — no jokes, please — when the green smoke let loose by the Erne’s fans dispersed on the wind.
The game itself spluttered out just as quickly.
Fermanagh had reserved their spot in the festival that is Clones on Ulster final day by grinding their way past Armagh and Monaghan. It was an approach that sparked abandon and delight inside their borders and groans and reservations almost everywhere else.
The expectation was that this would be another game to be endured rather than enjoyed. Even with a Donegal side that had scored so freely on their way here and one playing with such a significant sense of freedom under the guidance of Declan Bonner.
Odd then to see Fermanagh’s early offerings. They dominated possession and territory in the first quarter. No end of players migrated forward in search of scores and it was Donegal who were guilty of/obliged to pull all 15 players back into their own half at one point in order to stem the waves.
They did that easily enough, truth be told, and the turning of the game actually emanated from Fermanagh’s boldness, Michael Langan surging forward to kick over their second point on the break and Eoghan Ban Gallagher finishing another counter to the net soon after.
Donegal corner back Eoghan Bán Gallagher gets on the end of a swift attack for the opening goal in today's Ulster Football Final against Fermanagh. Watch highlights tonight at 9.30pm @RTE2 pic.twitter.com/6AdZWB1XMk— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) June 24, 2018
That 1-1 was bagged in the space of 60 short seconds and, when Ryan McHugh turned from creator of the first goal to finisher of the second on the half-hour, it was already just a question of how wide the end margin would be between them.
GOAL for Donegal's Ryan McHugh! pic.twitter.com/Ifqk5AMIpJ— The GAA (@officialgaa) June 24, 2018
Fermanagh were already in deep trouble, caught between a rock and a hard place on a broiling hot day. Push forward and they risked leaving more gaps for Donegal to punish. Sit back and they were accepting the inevitability of defeat, whatever the score.
The deficit was 2-7 to 0-5 at the break and credit to Donegal for the quandary they created.
Declan Bonner has done a wonderful job with this side, using his knowledge of the county’s recent underage sides and the club scene to fashion a squad capable of brushing over the absence through suspension of a man like Neil McGee yesterday with next to no fuss.
Michael Murphy, used in midfield here and shepherded all day by the attentive Che Cullen, scored just a single point from play. So too Paddy McBrearty who departed injured early in the second half. None of which mattered here. Not even a jot.
Thirteen players contributed to the scoresheet for them. It was ten the last day, against Down in the semi-final. The numbers on their backs or the ages in their passports seem to have no bearing on their worth and, at times, their positioning.
Ban Gallagher, corner-back, was top scorer from play. Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson were others who excelled. Paddy McGrath seems to have the eternal youth of a Dorian Grey and Ryan McHugh is, again, the cog turning the whole wheel.
McHugh was sensational here. His input in all areas of the field is unparalleled, eternal. His intelligence, pace and footballing nous serves as a sort of exotic spice that makes the whole dish taste and look so much better.
The damage for Fermanagh could have been worse.
McGrath had a goal disallowed shortly after the interval for square ball, although the rate of scores recorded did accelerate in the last quarter after Fermanagh’s Ryan Jones had seen a combination of yellow, black and red cards inside five costly minutes.
The final whistle was greeted with the kind of pitch invasion that seemed odd considering it is Donegal’s fourth title in eight seasons and yet perfectly in keeping with a county claiming just their ninth in total. They remember the lean times in the hills.
Donegal are Ulster football champions! Check out the full-time highlights here! pic.twitter.com/iJcoam5RC2— The GAA (@officialgaa) June 24, 2018
For Bonner, it should serve as some manner of closure 20 years after Joe Brolly and Derry stole a provincial title off him during his first stint in charge but what it says for their capabilities going forward, when the championship heats up, is another thing.
Like Dublin and Kerry, they have sauntered through the confines of their province. Derry pushed them closest and even they fell half-a-dozen points short. Stiffer tests await. Starting with their first Super 8s tie, against the Dubs, next month.
E Ban Gallagher (1-1); M Murphy (0-4, 3 frees); R McHugh (1-0); C Thompson (0-3, 1f); P Brennan (0-2); P McGrath, O Mac Niallais, M Langan, P McBrearty, J Brennan, M McHugh, D O’Connor and C Mulligan (all 0-1).
Sean Quigley (0-4 frees); Seamus Quigley (0-3, 1f); B Mulrone, E Donnelly, C Jones, C Corrigan and R Corrigan (all 0-1).
S Patton; P McGrath, S McMenamin, EB Gallagher; F McGlynn, P Brennan, R McHugh; H McFadden C Thompson; O Mac Niallias, M Murphy, L McLoone; P McBrearty, M Langan, J Brennan.
D O Baoill for McBrearty (38); C Ward for Brennan (56); A Thompson for Mac Niallias (60); C Mulligan for Langan (62); M McHugh for C Thompson (64); D O’Connor for Brennan (67).
P Cadden; K Connor, J McMahon, M Jones; B Mulrone, C Cullen, L Cullen; E Donnelly, R Jones; P McCusker, D McCusker, A Breen; S Quigley, C Jones, C Corrigan.
E McHugh for Connor (32); C McManus for M Jones and Seamus Quigley for P McCusker (both HT); T Clarke for Corrigan (44); R Corrigan for Sean Quigley (56); D Teague for D McCusker (66).
D Gough (Meath).
Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher pinpointed the two goals, after 15 and 30 minutes, as the game clinchers but Donegal would have cruised away from their pursuers regardless. They were too good, too well-drilled and too hungry.
DUP leader Arlene Foster’s presence won’t have met the approval of all – not just diehard nationalists, but those who might see it as cynical politicking – but it was a moment of some note and import regardless.
Clones has rarely looked this good. A huge Fermanagh following had colonised the streets hours before throw-in and the cloudless skies and burning heat made for a festive atmosphere which, unfortunately, didn’t make it to half-time.
The second of three senior provincial football finals over the weekend, this was just another in a hat-trick of maulings that only strengthen the argument for a root and branch revamp of the championship structure.
Paddy McBrearty showed bravery in kicking a first-half score in the knowledge that it would leave him open to a blow and it cost him in making way after the interval. It remains to be seen how serious a concern he is.
Fermanagh played with much more attacking focus than expected in the opening quarter and were made pay for it when Donegal hit them for 1-1 on the counter around the mid-point of the opening half. Everything after that was immaterial.
Crikey, take your pick. Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Michael Langan and Ciaran Thompson were sensational but Ryan McHugh was the man oiling the wheels. What a talent, what an engine.
David Gough had an easy enough ride of it in with what was a more open game than expected. Particularly keen on punishing off the ball offences.
Donegal become the first ever Ulster side to book their place in the ‘Super 8s’ - starting with a tie against Dublin in mid-July.
Fermanagh face the lottery of the All-Ireland qualifiers draw. Win their next game and they can join the Ulster champs in the big show.