Fermanagh 1-8 Monaghan 0-10: It was the type of finish that a game devoid of adventure and flair scarcely deserved, a climax worthy of any sporting occasion, as Fermanagh reached for the sky on an unforgettable afternoon at Healy Park.
Skipper Eoin Donnelly punched a huge hole in Monaghan’s season as he rose high deep into stoppage time to swing a firm hand at a Ryan Jones delivery and ripple the net.
Fermanagh by a point, and a first Ulster final appearance in a decade.
One of only two teams in the country without a provincial title, these warriors from Erne feel this could be their season for history as they await the winners of the other semi-final between Donegal and Down.
Fermanagh’s defensive, possession-based game frustrated hot favourites Monaghan for most of the afternoon, but most in the crowd of 10,122 felt Malachy O’Rourke’s men had done enough when, late on, Drew Wylie, Colin Walshe, and Conor McManus pushed them two clear.
Stunned into disbelief, Monaghan had somehow managed to lose a second successive semi-final to downright underdogs, their killer instinct still a work in progress, despite their clinical first-round dismissal of reigning champions Tyrone.
To Rory Gallagher go the plaudits for this tactical masterclass. Having nullified all the major Farney threats, he looked as if it was to be yet another case of taking the brave challenger almost to the brink, but fortune favoured his brave, heroic foot-soldiers in the end.
It was a carefully crafted plan by the former Donegal boss, but in the end his hand was forced, and the gamble paid off.
“The man is out on his feet and then you move him to full-forward and he comes up with something — he just has a warrior-like attitude and I’m pleased for him, I’m pleased for all the players,” said Gallagher.
“I remembered the 2008 games against Derry when Barry Owens scored. It’s old school, but if you have a big man in the square, something can happen.”
Fermanagh bossed possession for most of the opening half, waiting patiently for the openings to appear, and when they did, Aidan Breen swung over a couple of beauties, one off either foot.
Top-scorer Seamus Quigley played no part due to a disciplinary issue, but younger brother Sean chipped in with a couple of frees as the men in green went 0-5 to 0-1 ahead, a McManus free their only score of the opening 29 minutes.
Late in the half, the Farney men got more width into their game and created the space for the excellent Karl O’Connell to exploit, winning frees that McManus despatched.
Conall Jones sent over a thundering point to put Fermanagh in at half-time with a 0-6 to 0-4 lead.
“We knew frees would be crucial,” said Gallagher. “They’re not easy to get but we figured we needed one or two of them.
“Then Ciaran (Corrigan) missed a couple of chances and we lost a couple of balls as well.
“We set out to try to be on top of them. We set out to try and limit what they’re good at. We get labelled ‘defensive’ but 50% of football is with the ball and 50% is without it. We need to get better with both.”
It was Monaghan who had more of the ball after the re-start, winning more breaking possession around midfield.
They began to wear down a tiring Fermanagh side, with a turnover giving Ryan McAnespie the opportunity to glide in for a score, before Drew Wylie gave them the lead for the first time on 58 minutes.
They had also brought quality off the bench in Colin Walshe and Conor McCarthy, the former kicking an excellent point, but Fermanagh substitute Tomas Corrigan was also to play a key role, converting a couple of difficult frees to keep his side alive.
They were on life support by the time full-back Wylie kicked his second for a two-point lead going into stoppage time, and it was all or nothing for flagging Fermanagh.
Donnelly pushed up on the opposition square, and the magic happened for the big Coa man as he led his side to triumph with the most dramatic of winning goals.
Gallagher said: “I just think it’s great for them. They’re really good lads, they’re serious about their football, they want to enjoy it and they can look forward to a brilliant three weeks.
“I was very fortunate to be involved in five Ulster finals and an Ulster U21 final in six years in Donegal. It’s a really privileged position to be in and they deserve it, I’m just delighted now that they’re getting the opportunity for most of them to play in their first Ulster final.”
Monaghan boss Malachy O’Rourke was struggling to come to terms with what had just happened.
“We thought coming in we’d been playing well, we felt there was a good hunger among the squad but it just didn’t happen for us on the day and it’s just very hard to take. There’s no point in saying any different, it’s a really tough one,” he said.
He admitted he struggled to find a way to counteract Fermanagh’s patient, possession-based game.
“Yeah, it was very, very tough. They were set up very well, they were very hungry, they marked really tight, we found it hard to get space but our boys would be the first to admit we were a wee bit off the game.
“When you’re a wee bit off like that, that extra bit of movement and energy, gaps aren’t as quick to appear so we found it hard to get space up there for a lot of the game. Towards the end we did and we went two points up and that makes it even more sickening to lose it at the end like that.”
Scorers for Fermanagh:
E Donnelly (1-0); S Quigley (0-3 frees); T Corrigan (2f), A Breen (0-2 each), C Jones (0-1).
Scorers for Monaghan:
C McManus (0-5 frees); D Wylie (0-2); R McAnespie, F Kelly, C Walshe (0-1 each).
R Beggan; K Duffy, D Wylie, R Wylie; D Mone, V Corey, F Kelly; K O’Connell, D Hughes; K Hughes, N Kearns, D Ward; R McAnespie, J McCarron, C McManus.
C McCarthy for Ward (41), D Malone for McCarron (41), C Walshe for Kelly (50), O Duffy for K Hughes (54), C Boyle for Mone (63), S Carey for Corey (BC, 73)
P Cadden; K Connor, C Cullen, M Jones; B Mulrone, J McMahon, L Cullen; E Donnelly, R Jones; P McCusker, D McCusker, A Breen; Sean Quigley, C Jones, Ciaran Corrigan.
D Teague for M Jones (43), R Corrigan for P McCusker (50), T Corrigan for Quigley (54), T Clarke for C Corrigan (59), R Lyons for C Jones (62)
C Lane (Cork).
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