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Glenties boss admits O'Donnell dismissal was key factor in Naomh Conaill taking Donegal senior title from St Eunan's

Naomh Conaill celebrate after beating St Eunan's in the Donegal Senior Football Championship Final at Ballybofey on Saturday Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
Naomh Conaill celebrate after beating St Eunan's in the Donegal Senior Football Championship Final at Ballybofey on Saturday Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

Michael Murphy Sport & Leisure Donegal SFC final: Naomh Conaill 1-9 St Eunan's 2-5

WERE Naomh Conaill the better team? The simple answer is yes.

They were the better team against 15 men and they were the better team against 14 men.

Now, whether they would have been the better team against 15 men for another 30 minutes had the 14 men not been 14 men, that’s the bit we’ll never know. It wasn’t just that St Eunan’s were a man light, but that they were a Shane O’Donnell light.

“It did have a bearing on the game, the fact it was Shane O’Donnell, he’s such a good player that of course he was a loss,” admitted Glenties boss Martin Regan, who said at that stage he hadn’t seen the incident that pretty much everyone in Ireland has not laid eyes on.

The red card was wrong. Just stone cold wrong. So far wrong that it’s hard to see how the linesman ever saw anything in what he did that resembled a red card.

Shane O’Donnell took his medicine like a man and walked off. Thousands were rubbernecking in the stand at their nearest phone, with fans dotted around the place glued to TG4’s coverage, allowing them a real-time replay. Others had it on WhatsApp within moments.

St Eunan’s tried to show it to the referee, although the one doing the rounds at that time was slightly abridged. Not that the fuller version made any difference, because it was still wrong.

The two managers, two of the brightest bulbs on the club circuit in Ulster, summed up the impact of it well but differed, naturally, on whether it was [ITALICS] the [ITALICS] defining moment.

Regan felt his side had been the better team against the strong wind in the first half, that they had “played most of the football” and that the game’s defensive tactical outlay masked a lost man.

St Eunan's manager Rory Kavanagh centered on who the lost man was, how central O’Donnell was to their play, particularly running the ball against the conditions they’d face after the break.

Just the third side in the history of Donegal football to appear in six consecutive finals, Naomh Conaill had been roundly written off as a force after the way St Eunan’s pulled them apart in last year’s decider.

Just two of their starting back seven are under 31. Maybe the safety in numbers is a direct correlation but there wasn’t a yellow jersey going into those numbers that felt safe in the first half on Saturday.

Turnover after turnover after turnover, they made Eunan’s pay for carrying the ball into them. Of all of it last year, Naomh Conaill had felt most disappointed by the lack of tackles they put on.

What disappointed Rory Kavanagh this time was that he knew that’s what would have driven Glenties and he told his players that, but they coughed up an enormous amount of ball.

“We weren’t by any means playing on our terms in the first half. We turned the ball over far too much and we weren’t happy about that, but the last six or seven minutes we started to play a bit better, protected the ball a wee bit more,” said Kavanagh.

“I thought we worked a brilliant score to put us two points up and then we had that decision. That decision… I’m still trying to come to terms with it.”

And then he goes into how they’d been told Shane O’Donnell was guilty of a strike at the man on the ground. Jeaic McKelvey’s reasons for being on the ground were questionable at best, throwing himself down after a harmless push to the chest, but that doesn’t exonerate the linesman that called referee Mark Dorrian and told him the aftermath was worthy of a red card.

St Eunan’s led at that stage by 1-3 to 0-4. They didn’t score in the first 13 minutes and actually only got two shots off in that time, but Conor O’Donnell snr’s incisions were notable all day and he laid the groundwork for Eoin McGeehin to get them off the mark by repeating his goalscoring exploits of last year.

Niall O’Donnell, who Glenties allowed to roam free when he came deep, was doing exactly that and beginning to dictate, kicking one superb score, but their attacking play on the whole was fidgety.

35-year-old Brendan McDyer, the only 30+ in the Naomh Conaill attack, was brilliant and kicked three points from play. He would have been man of the match only for Ciaran Thompson, who completed a notable achievement of being named the best player in two county finals.

Charlie McGuinness, who dominated at midfield on kickouts and then went back to full-forward each time, read the flight of Odhran Doherty’s brilliant diagonal ball better than Caolan Ward. McGuinness got goalside and slid home his side’s goal and put Glenties 1-5 to 1-3 ahead after 39 minutes.

They pushed on and led by three, looking in complete command until a half-hit Niall O’Donnell shot and a McGeehin fumble left the ball in the arms of Kevin Kealy, who studded it on the swivel to net and level it.

Twenty seconds later, Thompson kicked Naomh Conaill back in front.

St Eunan’s would naturally point to the red card as the game’s defining moment. Naomh Conaill would point to that score by Thompson.

If they’d let Eunan’s settle into parity and turn that to a lead, the game could have gone away very quickly. And even though Conor Morrison did equalise again, a brilliant long-range Thompson free proved the winner.

Sean McVeigh, who had a fine second half for the Letterkenny men, lashed the last shot wide off his weaker left after they’d kept the ball for almost three minutes to work the shot.

Naomh Conaill have now won three Donegal championships in four years. Despite all they’ve done their greatness has been subject to questioning.

This felt like the day they provided the definitive answer.

MATCH STATS

Naomh Conaill: S McGrath; K McGettigan, AJ Gallagher, J Campbell; E O’Donnell, A Thompson, E Wade; C Thompson (0-4, 0-3 frees), J McKelvey (0-1); B McDyer (0-3), O Doherty, E Doherty, K McGill; J O’Malley, C McGuinness (1-1, 0-1 free)

Subs: L McLoone for O’Malley (57), D Molloy for McDyer (63), M Boyle for O Doherty (63)

St Eunan’s: S Patton; C Parke, C Ward, A Deeney (0-1); C O’Donnell snr; P Devine, K Kealy (1-0), D Mulgrew; S McGettigan, P McGettigan; C Moore, S O’Donnell, S McVeigh (0-1); N O’Donnell (0-2, 0-1 free), E McGeehin (1-0)

Subs: K Tobin for Parke (HT), C O’Donnell jnr for P McGettigan (40), C Morrison for Devine (42), E Dowling for S McGettigan (54)

Referee: M Dorrian (Fanad Gaels)