Martin McElhinney is among the select band of players who knows what it is to have played in an Ulster final at Croke Park, but he doesn’t believe the time is right now to bring the provincial decider back to HQ in a fortnight’s time.
The Dublin stadium hosted Ulster football’s big day for three seasons between 2004 and 2006 and the 27-year-old was a member of the Donegal minor side that accounted for Armagh in the last year of that temporary tenancy.
It was the presence of Armagh, Tyrone and Donegal in the previous year’s All-Ireland semi-finals that prompted the switch a dozen years ago and, with Donegal and Tyrone living up to respective pre-championship billings by making this year’s final, interest is high again.
Former Dublin midfielder Ciarán Whelan is among those to have nominated Croke Park as the best venue for the meeting of the two heavyweights, though the Ulster Council would hardly be of a mood to deprive Clones of its habitual billing at such short notice.
McElhinney, who started at centre-forward for Donegal against Monaghan in their successful Ulster semi-final replay at Breffni Park last Saturday, believes there is more than enough merit in maintaining the status quo.
“There was some talk about making it a double header (with the Leinster football final) in Croke Park but I wouldn’t want to bring it here because the close proximity of the crowd in Cavan – the fans were in on top of you – creates a real atmosphere.”
Speaking in Croke Park to promote the upcoming Etihad Airways GAA World Games, he added: “If you bring it here it might lose that. At the end of the day we’re all from Ulster and we want to play our big games in Ulster.”
There is something fitting about that. The summer has again been littered with complaints about championship structures and the declining importance and competitiveness of the provincial competitions but Ulster remains a bastion for the days of old when regional concerns still carried great weight.
Donegal have had to graft their way through three difficult assignments, against Fermanagh and Monaghan (twice), just to book themselves an appointment with a Tyrone side rapidly evolving into a serious contender for national honours.
No other province asks anything like as much of its counties. Donegal have actually reached the Ulster final six times straight which, given that dog-eat-dog environment, is a remarkable record, even if it again begs the question as to whether such a pathway drains Ulster teams or drives them on.
“It’s not draining at all,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier to get up for Ulster Championship matches. It’s the be-all and end-all for us in Donegal to get out and win an Ulster Championship. You look how hard it is to win. We’ve played Monaghan, now we’ve to play Tyrone, we played Fermanagh in the first round. They are all serious encounters. Tough matches are a lot better than going out and beating teams 16/17 points.”
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