Donegal’s Shaun Patton reports for duty as lightning strikes Armagh again

The real psychological battle resides with Armagh now, who must have put so many eggs in the basket of winning an Ulster title to prove themselves to the world. Do they really believe they belong here? Because Donegal do.

Donegal's Shaun Patton saves a penalty at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's  Park, Clones. Picture by Philip Walsh
Donegal's Shaun Patton saves a penalty at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park, Clones. Picture by Philip Walsh
Ulster Senior Football Championship final: Armagh 0-20 Donegal 0-20 (AET, Donegal win 6-5 on penalties)

JUST as it all begins to cool off, Shaun Patton’s personal support club let out a roar to let him know of their presence at a pocket of seats in an otherwise empty stand

Hugs and kisses and smiles and pats on the head. What a strange day it must have been for all of them.

He spent half an hour of a warm-up leaving Armagh guessing. Not a single kickout. When he eventually dipped in, the first four were off his left foot. Then he trickled a few off the right at the receiver’s feet. He did not look like a man fit to play an Ulster final.

Two-and-a-half epic hours later, he springs like a spring lamb to his right, turning Shane McPartlan’s sudden-death penalty away.

When Brendan Devenney, his own club manager with St Eunan’s, asked Patton after the Derry game what he’d done to his leg, he said he didn’t know.

“I was thinking ‘it’s your f***ing leg’,” Devenney told the Smaller Fish podcast, laughing at how tight the circle had become.

Donegal completed the circle in Clones. They’re back on top of Ulster football. And it is no great surprise.

Everything about their prospects had been based off 2023. Referencing last year from the podium, Patrick McBrearty said that as players they were “at an all-time low” until they approached Jim McGuinness.

“We practically begged him,” McBrearty told the thronging mass of green and gold that bows at their feet once more, and him with his hands on a sixth Ulster medal, the first Donegal player in history to achieve that feat.

But this was a team that knew the tastes and smells and sights and sounds of Ulster finals. Even one like this, against Derry two years ago.

The sea on the pitch felt like a victory in itself. Even though they were in an Ulster final two years ago, Derry fans outnumbered them five-to-one. They’d fallen out of love.

When the final penalty was taken, they burst the seams of Clones and celebrated like you’d have expected Armagh to. Glorious and wild and unkempt and raw and passionate.

They cut for the pitch while the orange men and women bowed their heads and disappeared beneath the green signs, up the grey hill and back into another black night.

Armagh must be considering asking the Crown Prosecution Service to open a cruelty file against the GAA.

Four penalty shootouts, four defeats. Two in Ulster finals and two in All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The thunder rolled over Clones and the lightning struck yet again.

They’d practiced them religiously in the build-up to this final, how could they not have? And it showed. They scored all of their first five. It just so happened that Donegal had been practicing too and did the same, and then their sixth as well. Armagh didn’t, and that was that.

They cannot, as with the previous three defeats, just shake their fist at the Gods or put in a Camelot to see if this lottery machine was another dud from Fujitsu.

Leading by 0-15 to 0-11, they looked absolutely primed. They’d fended off Donegal’s third quarter and bettered it.

And then, inexplicably, they stopped going after it, like a team trying so hard to slow it down and show they could control a game that they lost control of it.

A kickout goes wide to Andrew Murnin, isolated on Ryan McHugh. Flicks it down, Ciaran Mackin is gone. He goes off Greg McCabe again, doesn’t get the pass, but that’s the height of the support.

McCabe ends up at the corner flag with nobody other than a marked Mackin anywhere near him. And yet in the original break, one runner would have broken the press and Armagh might have had a goal, Donegal were so exposed.

From the turnover, Donegal win a free. 0-15 to 0-13. Michael Langan breaks the kickout, Jason McGee points, 0-15 to 0-14. Three points becomes one in a blink.

Armagh’s four-point lead was the only time the game threatened to be anything other than a furious tug-of-war.

0-10 to 0-9 at half-time, having been level seven times.

They were level just once in the second period, but when it counted, at the death. A third Ulster final in succession to need the extra-twenty minutes, the second to need the shootout.

Exactly as last year, when Rory Grugan dropped his effort short, Armagh had a mark to win it. A difficult mark, one that you wouldn’t be throwing the ball to Tiarnan Kelly every night to kick.

He did right to have a go given that nobody in the ground knew what was happening in terms of time. It was two minutes into stoppage time but no board had gone up. It finally went up showing three when there were 30 seconds of it left, which angered Donegal, who didn’t get a shot off in the short time that was left for their last attack.

From four down, they’d come to look the more likely winners again. Armagh didn’t score for the final 20 minutes of normal time and the first seven of extra-time. Too long, in a game like this against an opponent that was dancing on ice in their socks, just waiting to be pushed over.

To flip that, Donegal were three down twice against Tyrone, rescued extra-time and won. They were four down here, rescued extra-time and won. Jim McGuinness’s greatest skill is not his tactical ability. It’s his ability to make Donegal footballers believe that they’re as good as anyone else in Ireland.

Brian McEniff is stood like a child, that boyish grin the width of the sparkling new green-and-gold beret.

When Donegal went to play the 1972 All-Ireland semi-final, one of his team-mates turned around to the goalkeeper and said he’d do well to keep the goals out today. McEniff hit the door a kick and said “there’ll be no f***ing goals”. He found over the years managing them that the only thing Donegal footballers lacked was belief in themselves.

Jim McGuinness has quickly restored that. In winning his fourth Ulster title as manager, the Glenties man moved to within one of McEniff’s five.

He’s indebted to Niall O’Donnell, so good that Philly McMahon even managed to identify him as man of the match. Of their six second-half points in normal time, when they really needed them, he scored two and set up two.

Peadar Mogan had punched all their first-half holes, the one runner Armagh couldn’t get a handle on.

Oisin Conaty had not only defied Ryan McHugh from involvement but went on to hurt Donegal with his own play. He didn’t really deserve to lose. Conor Turbitt had a great first half but faded, while Paddy Burns went the other way, settling after the other flame-haired firestarter Oisin Gallen had the first half of his life.

Andrew Murnin was incredible too, insatiable. Oisin O’Neill and Aidan Nugent made big impacts. God, Armagh must be sick.

But Donegal are finding ways. Different ways. Different answers each time, building an arsenal of weaponry for what comes next.

That begins by inviting Tyrone into Ballybofey. The psychology of that game is already so different to when they met a fortnight ago.

The real psychological battle resides with Armagh now, who must have put so many eggs in the basket of winning an Ulster title to prove themselves to the world.

Do they really believe they belong here? Because Donegal do.

Armagh: B Hughes; A McKay, P Burns, P McGrane; G McCabe, Ciaran Mackin (0-1), A Forker (0-1); R O’Neill (0-1 mark), B Crealey (0-2, 0-1 mark); S Campbell (0-2), R Grugan (0-1), J McElroy, O Conaty (0-2); A Murnin (0-2), C Turbitt (0-4)
Subs: J Óg Burns for McCabe (60), O O’Neill for Crealey (65), A Nugent (0-3, 0-1 free) for Turbitt (66), T Kelly for Forker (70), J Duffy for McElroy (start of ET), J Hall for McGrane (78), S McPartlan (80), C Turbitt for R O’Neill (85)
Donegal: S Patton; C Moore, B McCole; C McGonagle; E Bán Gallagher, M Curran, R McHugh; J McGee (0-1), M Langan (0-1); P Mogan (0-2), C Thompson, D Ó Baoill (0-2); S O’Donnell (0-2), O Gallen (0-6, 0-2 frees), N O’Donnell (0-2)
Subs: C McColgan for Curran (HT), P McBrearty (0-2, 0-1 free) for Moore (42), A Doherty for Ó Baoill (46), J Brennan for Gallagher (55), J McKelvey (0-1) for Thompson (67), O Doherty (0-1) for Gallen (71), D Ó Baoill for N O’Donnell (80), C Thompson for McBrearty (89)
Referee: M McNally (Monaghan)
Attendance: 28,896