John McEntee: Ulster finalists Gaoth Dobhair and Scotstown deserved a better surface than the one they got
SO another Ulster Club SFC has drawn to a close and another
first-time winner emerges victorious in their pursuit of the Seamus McFerran Cup.
Interestingly, since 2000 only Loup and Gaoth Dobhair are newcomers to the high table, both of whom were particularly boosted by wins over Crossmaglen Rangers along the way.
Back then, Loup were a youthful yet experienced side, ably led by Johnny McBride and Paul McFlynn, who were two of Derry’s most intelligent players of that era.
Of course, we should not forget they were also managed by the one and only Malachy O’Rourke, the current Monaghan manager.
Malachy is one of the few inter-county managers whose reputation as an excellent manager was forged by repeated success at club level across different clubs and counties.
Back in my playing days, I remember harbouring an intense dislike for players and managers I never met nor knew, and all because their teams had this knack of out-playing us, of
out-thinking us and ultimately scoring more than us when it mattered most.
Of course, at that age all that mattered was winning and the principle of being a good sportsman was easily overridden by the emotion of being a sore loser.
With maturity came a strong admiration of their work and an appreciation that our teams can’t win them all, no matter how hard we tried.
With this in mind I wonder how Scotstown are feeling towards the officials, the opposition and towards Ulster GAA this week? Are they aggrieved? Little separated Scotstown and Gaoth Dobhair in a game played on a bed of muck.
The most positive development of the past 20 years was the creation of sand-based pitches.
Gone are the 20mm steel screw-in studs or the days when we would have to wash the muck out of our gloves at half time.
Winter matches can now be played with players wearing moulded boots and it is conceivable that one could play for 60 minutes with nothing but sweat and grass stains to be washed from their jerseys.
In the semi-final, double-header at Healy Park it was evident the pitch had a lot of work done to it; many large patches of grass were either re-laid or recently sown.
In the preceding days a few short falls of rain prompted the Ulster Council to place the Athletic Grounds and Enniskillen on alert in case one or both matches would have to be redirected should the pitch be assessed as being unplayable.
As it transpired, both games went ahead without any fuss.
Omagh is a summer pitch: a good old Irish sod which plays brilliantly and looks amazing in wall-to-wall sunshine.
This time of year is different.
It rained on and off for several days, with many heavy showers.
There was a higher than average rainfall.
There was no drying, no growth.
The ground did not get a chance to recover and, as a result, the pitch was substandard for 2018.
The dogs in the street knew this was going to be the case so why did Ulster GAA choose Omagh? What was the rationale for playing both semi-finals and the final in Omagh? The obvious answer is that Omagh is centrally located between Scotstown and Gaoth Dobhair.
It takes about the same time to get from Scotstown to Enniskillen as it does to Omagh, and Enniskillen is only 15 minutes further for the Donegal champions along a different road.
An extra half-hour in a bus is neither here nor there when you are competing for a major trophy.
Enniskillen has had no recent football, it is in perfect condition and the venue would easily host a game of this magnitude.
In 2018 the pitch should not be a discussion point, but it is.
With about two minutes of normal time remaining, Scotstown’s Darren Hughes took off on one of his powerful runs through the centre of the Gaoth Dobhair defence.
Rather than shooting, he opted to play it to his left towards the supporting run of Donal Morgan.
As everyone in the stand looked on, fully anticipating the arrival of the winning score, the ball went to ground and failed to rise again.
It slapped into one of these large patches and skidded past a helpless Morgan into the feet of an opposing player.
Gaoth Dobhair went on the attack to score a dramatic ‘winner’ which was correctly disallowed for a throw-ball in the assist. Yet it could have been so different had that ball bounced into Morgan’s hands.
There will be many 20-somethings in Scotstown who might be deeply resentful of the small things which may have contributed to their loss.
I’d urge them to think twice, and perhaps to take inspiration from an opposing player – Kevin Cassidy – and what he had to endure in his playing career.
Being a county captain and two-time Allstar did not save him from missing out on Donegal’s 2012 All Ireland success but, to his credit, his love for the game drove him and 30 other local lads to provincial glory for their parish.
Often defeats teach us our greatest lessons.