Down and Monaghan contest Ulster U20 final in memory of Brendan Og Duffy
Eirgrid Ulster U20 Football Championship final: Monaghan v Down (tonight, the Athletic Grounds, 7.30pm, live on TG4)
WHATEVER happens in Armagh tonight, this Ulster U20 final will always be remembered for the young man who isn't there.
Brendan Og Duffy of Monaghan Harps should have led his side out against Down at the Athletic Grounds but his life was cut tragically short after he died following a car crash on the way home from his county's Ulster semi-final win over Donegal at Brewster Park.
The tragedy put the importance of sport into perspective and players from both of tonight's finalists united in grief to mourn ‘Ogie' at his funeral at St McCartan's Church in Monaghan last week.
“Sometimes small things, even just being at the funeral can help,” said Monaghan senior captain Ryan Wylie this week.
“I'd like to give a special mention to the Down U20s and I know there were some Donegal U20s at the funeral as well - gestures like that meant a lot. It's unimaginable. If I could do anything for that younger generation, I'll be there for them.”
Monaghan and Down will give all they have at the Athletic Grounds to produce a final in Brendan's honour and both counties have played some sparkling football on the way to tonight's decider.
The pace and cutting-edge of this Down side mirrors the tenacious style of their manager Conor Laverty (who is assisted by Meath football doyen Sean Boylan and former Mourne county Allstar and All-Ireland finalist Marty Clarke) and their progress has been rapturously received by the county's long-suffering supporters.
Down had too much firepower for Cavan in their quarter-final and won 2-17 to 0-9. Andrew Gilmore and Danny Magill bagged the goals and there were four frees from the dynamite boot of goalkeeper Charlie Smyth.
The Mourne youngsters took control of their semi-final against Fermanagh after an early goal from targetman full-forward Ruairi O'Hare and with Shealan Johnston, John McGovern and Anthony Morgan, Gilmore and Magill all outstanding, they clinched a place in the provincial final for the first time since 2009 with a 1-13 to 0-10 win.
Meanwhile, Monaghan began their campaign for a fourth Ulster title at this level, and a first since 2016, against Derry. The Oak Leaf county had featured in three out of the last four finals but a Jason Irwin goal sparked Monaghan into life after a nervous start and another Irwin ‘major' in the second half sealed the county's first ever win at U20 level.
In the semi-final, the Farney county youngsters came up against a Donegal side that had already accounted for Armagh and, at the quarter-final stage, three in-a-row chasing Tyrone.
Again their goal-scoring cutting edge made all the difference. Donnach Swinburne hat-trick paved the way for a signal-of-intent win for the Farneymen. Swinburne's first came from a penalty in the first half and his second 12 minutes after the break levelled a nip-and-tuck affair. But Monaghan kicked on from there and Swinburne completed his hat-trick to seal a 3-10 to 1-11 win.
The stage is set for an entertaining final and memories of ‘Ogie' will never stray far from the thoughts of the young players who provide it.