June 16, 2002 should have been a memorable date for Donegal supporters.
It was the day they reached their first Ulster final in four years. After three seasons without a single win in the province, it should have been that bit special.
Defender Kevin Cassidy, an All Star later that year, recalls it vividly but not for the right reasons.
A measly crowd of 7,394 turned up in Clones but the vast majority only arrived in St Tiernach’s Park for the second half, having watched the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup last 16 game against Spain going into extra-time and penalties in Suwon.
Places like the Creighton Hotel in the town were thronged as fans immersed themselves in the drama. Up Church Hill, Cassidy and his team-mates as well as their Derry opponents were left to start a game in front of a largely vacant stand and terraces as the Ulster Council ploughed ahead with the original throw-in time.
“There was a lot of talk beforehand that the Ulster Council would put the throw-in back to allow people watch the game and then ours afterwards all in good time but they didn’t,” recounts Cassidy.
“It was a surreal experience. Really eerie. I could only compare it to an early qualifier in some place away from home where there is no atmosphere.
“It should have been a massive day for us because it was our first Ulster semi-final since 1998. That normal Clones roar to greet you when you came out of the tunnel wasn’t there.
“All week at home, there wasn’t that same buzz you would get in the build-up. People were asking themselves will they or won’t they go. In the end, most of them just stayed at home.
“The Euros, the World Cup — everybody jumps on the bandwagon. Saipan had happened just a few weeks earlier and everybody was clued into what was happening. The team attracted so much interest.”
One journalist wrote afterwards that a colleague was reprimanded by an Ulster Council official for watching the game on a portable TV in the press box.
On a day when the likes of Matt Holland and Kevin Kilbane couldn’t stick a penalty away, it was Donegal forward Adrian Sweeney who struck home a decisive dead-ball from a spot further away and towards a smaller goal to put Mickey Moran’s men into the final.
And yet there was a sense of anti-climax, admits Cassidy.
“The crowd came in by the time the second half started but the atmosphere was still subdued, probably by the result of the Ireland game. We were told the result going into the tunnel at half-time but the thing we were disappointed about was not having the support.
“I don’t think it impacted on us. The conditions were wet and it was a stop-start game. But the lack of an atmosphere took a wee bit away from the win.”
In Fitzgerald Stadium later that day, Kerry and Cork played out a 0-8 apiece draw in a Munster quarter-final in front of 30,425 supporters — down 11,000 on the number the year before. Jim Forbes was Cork vice chairman at the time. He watched the soccer in a Killarney hotel that morning. He blamed conditions for the decrease in attendance.
“It was the worst day I was ever at a match. The crowd was down mostly because of the weather. Only some of it had to do with the match.”
— John Fogarty
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