Two years ago, Gaoth Dobhair were beaten by 12 points in the Donegal Championship and walked out of the ground a broken team. Mervyn O’Donnell took over as manager and made one pledge — that he was going to restore honesty to the club.
Now, they will face Scotstown in their first-ever Ulster club final, after — not to be blunt about it — tearing no less than Crossmaglen Rangers asunder.
There was always the suspicion that Gaoth Dobhair’s running game would trouble Cross, but few could have predicted the ease in which they got in behind the lines and plundered the Armagh champions.
Dáire Ó Baoill struck for three goals in the first 25 minutes. The first came from a ball floated over a defensive line that he raced through to pot a shot beyond Rangers goalkeeper Jamie McEvoy.
The second came out of nothing really, as he tore off from the sideline farthest from the stand and just kept running for 50 metres before again just caressing the ball to the net.
As much as what is made about Crossmaglen’s style and the traditional shape they favour, it simply wasn’t fit for purpose here and Gaoth Dobhair’s runners ran riot.
A penalty arrived after 25 minutes after when it looked like they had overcooked a move, Cian Mulligan was upended by Garvan Carragher. Ó Baoill’s finish underlined his experience playing soccer.
Say what you want about rule changes, but games like this refute the need for any tinkering.
Despite all that, Cross came roaring back and in the last three minutes of the first half forced their opponents to over-carry three times, getting their free kicks off quickly and narrowing the gap to five, the O’Neill brothers Rian and Oisín leading the charge.
“To be honest, we were delighted to see the half-time whistle to get back to the dressing room,” said Gaoth Dobhair manager Mervyn O’Donnell.
“We felt we were under a bit of pressure and they had a bit of a purple patch. Going in at halftime we felt the tide had turned.”
Cross had a half chance at goal when substitute David McKenna unleashed a shot but ÓBaoill stretched full length to block it down.
Three minutes into the half and their task became impossible. Johnny Hanratty had already been booked just prior to half-time for a reckless challenge and another high one on Christopher McFadden had referee Joe McQuillan awarding his second yellow, and a red.
With Odhran MacNiallais and Ó Baoill exceptional in midfield and Kevin Cassidy roaring into matters with two points early in the half, Gaoth Dobhair knew they couldn’t afford to sit back on their cushion.
They grabbed a slice of fortune when an attempt for a point by MacNiallais dropped off the post. Underneath it was Cassidy, who slammed his shot home to the biggest roar of the day.
Cross kept playing to the end but by that stage, there was too much work to do and too many Gaoth Dobhair bodies to get around. David McKenna had another sight of goal in injury time, but goalkeeper Christopher Sweeney was equal to it.
Their evening was rounded off with another red card, this time for Rian O’Neill in the fourth minute of injury time when he went in late and high on James Boyle.
Their age profile suggests that this is one big final push for a number of the Gaoth Dobhair players. And how they are enjoying it.
Scorers for Gaoth Dobhair: D Ó Baoill (3-0, 1-0 penalty), K Cassidy (1-2), O MacNiallais (0-4, 1 free), E Colm (0-2, 1 free), N Friel, C Mulligan, S ÓFearraigh (0-1 each).
Scorers for Crossmaglen: R O’Neill (0-9, 5 frees), O O’Neil (0-3, 1 free), K Carragher (0-2), T Kernan (0-2, 1 free), J Hanratty (0-1) .
GAOTH DOBHAIR: C Sweeney; G McFadden, N McGee, C McFadden; N Freil, E McGee, O McFadden-Ferry; D Ó Baoill, O MacNiallais; C Mulligan, N Ó oill, D McBride; E Colm, K Cassidy, M Carroll.
Subs: P McGee for McBride (43 mins), J Carroll for Colm (47 mins), S ÓBaoill for McFadden-Ferry (52 mins), S ÓFearraigh for N ÓBaoill (58 mins), C McClafferty for E McGee (64 mins).
CROSSMAGLEN: J McEvoy; R Kelly, A Farrelly, G Carragher; A Kernan, J Morgan, P Hughes; S Morris, O’Neill; J McKeever, R O’Neill, J Hanratty; C Cumiskey, T Kernan, K Carragher.
Subs: A Rushe for G Carragher (28 mins), D McKenna for McKeever (H-time), C McConville for T Kernan (46 mins), P Stuttard for Hughes (48 mins), M Boyce for Carragher (59 mins) Red cards: Hanratty (33m), R O’Neill (64m).
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).