The man with the mic, the mystery of the missing watch, and another Armagh penalty tale of woe at an Ulster final

Donegal’s fairytale year after Jim McGuinness’s return sees Anglo-Celt head for the Hills

Donegal's players at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's  Park, Clones on 05-12-2024.Pic Philip Walsh
Donegal's players at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park, Clones on 05-12-2024.Pic Philip Walsh

THE stadium announcer at St Tiernach’s Park was fighting a losing battle by the time all was said and done.

Did anybody lose this red iPhone? Can people move away from the entrance to the tunnel, please? Just move towards the exits please - and towards Donegal.

Can they turn the music off, please? CAN... THE... MUSIC... BE... TURNED... OFF! It was wasted effort.

The man with the mic could have been telling those in yellow and green that World War Three had commenced and it wouldn’t have registered, such was the warm glow that spread right across the front of the Gerry Arthurs stand where, half an hour earlier, Tir Chonaill captain Paddy McBrearty had hoisted aloft the Anglo-Celt Cup.

It wasn’t even the music drowning him out - just that mad, happy burble of excited conversation that flows when all feels right with the world; the one we can’t help but envy while watching others captured in its glorious midst.

Beneath the stand, Jim McGuinness and his newly-minted provincial champions were making the most of their precious time together having finally escaped the masses; cheers shaking the seats above as the magnitude of their achievement hit home.

Long after the dust had settled, the crowds dispersed as darkness began to fall, they came back out onto the scene of battle, now wearing white shirts and black strides, at first searching for watch lost in the mayhem – “that cost 500 euro, hi” – before cans of beer were placed on the ground, the entire group coming together for a picture that will mean more with each year that passes.

Because it is almost unimaginable what has transpired in such a short space of time.

Twelve months ago, they were bounced out of Ulster by Division Three Down. That came weeks after relegation from the top tier of the National League. The talismanic Michael Murphy had retired before a ball was kicked. The fall-out from the Karl Lacey Donegal academy saga left fissures and fractures at every turn.

Yet here they stand.

“Where’s Jim?” asked McBrearty, sole survivor from the 2012 glory days, before beginning his speech as McGuinness stood among the crowds below.

When Murphy called time, many expected McBrearty might sever that connection entirely. Instead he led a party that sought out the man they felt was needed to steer the ship back on course.

“We begged him at times to come back, thankfully you did. I owe you everything as a person.”

Even then, that such perfect symmetry could be achieved all these years on felt like fairytale, candy floss stuff. Pure pie in the sky.

Yet every hurdle has been overcome. Promotion achieved with ease, defending Ulster champions Derry vanquished, Tyrone toppled after extra-time, then Armagh on Sunday – inflicting the all-too-familiar indignity of shoot-out heartache on the Orchard once more.

Christ, Armagh... where do you even start?

Not that it was ever remotely funny for their followers, but this whole penalties thing has gone far beyond a joke now. Tiernan Kelly had tempted fate with his before Shaun Patton dived to his right to save from Shane McPartlan and inflict another hammer blow.

They led by four and looked in total command after half-time in normal time. Kelly stood over a mark at the death, just as Rory Grugan had done in last year’s Ulster final. This was a fourth penalty shoot-out defeat in two years.

It sounds harsh, but hard luck stories are starting to wear thin.

The build up this year’s final had been understated, certainly in comparison to 12 months earlier, but the focus somehow stayed on Armagh while Donegal – even with McGuinness back at the helm – managed to slip off into the shadows.

Could they finally shed the chains of recent history? Could Kieran McGeeney, in his 10th year, finally silence some of the naysayers with a trophy? With each excruciating near miss, the pressure valve is tightened just that little bit more.

Symbols of a different time were on show too, with the Armagh side that lifted the Anglo-Celt in 1999 paraded at half-time. Uachtaran Jarlath Burns led the way, waving to the crowd, Benny Tierney blew kisses, while McGeeney was represented by son Cian.

The Mullaghbawn man had more serious business to consider.

Sitting in the stand, the remainder of Sunday’s game may have taken more out of them than that one-sided win over Down on the same sod 25 years before. Tony McEntee and Enda McNulty sat in stony silence as the drama unfolded. Ger Reid may not have even moved a muscle.

Tierney’s animation shifted from anticipation to trepidation as Donegal’s comeback began, the 2002 All-Ireland winning ‘keeper up out of his seat time and again while the sides went blow for blow.

“Come on boys,” he shouted, “mark up, mark up...”

But the belief that Armagh could end a 16-year wait for Ulster glory slowly but surely wilted away as Niall O’Donnell led the comeback.

The streets around the diamond in Clones had been typically chaotic in the hours before throw-in, but nothing compared to this. It was exhausting to watch, never mind play in, the sun saving its greatest punishment for those extra-time minutes as legs wearied and hearts sped.

For the Orchard, that millstone remains around their neck. The Armagh players couldn’t get off the field quick enough at the end, and who could blame them? It was the kind of crazy day that has come to define them, for better or worse.

The stadium announcer tried one last time until the trip home to the Hills finally commenced. But Donegal have eyes on more than Ulster now – the warning has been sent.

This might only be the start.