Return to Clones at long last as Donegal and Derry meet in a battle worth waiting for
THE craic up the town, the walk to the ground, the atmosphere and colour on the hill building to fever pitch by throw-in and then the best two sides in Ulster locking horns for the Anglo-Celt…
It's been three long years since we've had this and the final of Ireland's foremost provincial Championship has not been the same. Two years ago, Cavan shocked Donegal in the Ulster final but no-one was there to see it and last year just 18,000 were admitted to Croke Park to watch Tyrone see off Monaghan in a thriller.
Tomorrow our provincial showpiece returns to its St Tiernach's Park home and a full house will watch north-west rivals Derry and Donegal battle it out for the Anglo-Celt Cup.
Rory Gallagher's Oak Leafers have the wind in their sails after hammering Tyrone and out-punching Monaghan. Are they up-and-coming or have they arrived?
On the other side of the draw, Donegal breezed past Armagh and then took all Cavan could throw at them before kicking for home and reaching their ninth provincial final since 2011. Are they at the peak or past their best?
Tomorrow's final will tell the tale. It's the last of the four provincial deciders to throw-in. Today Kerry and Limerick meet in the Munster final (3pm) before Kildare take on Dublin in Leinster (5pm). Tomorrow Roscommon and Galway clash in Connacht (1.45pm) and then all eyes will be trained on a battle that conjures up memories of famous clashes of yesteryear.
Declan Bonner scored three points against Derry in the 1992 Ulster final and Donegal went on to win the Sam Maguire for the first time. The following year Enda Gormley top-scored when Derry got their own back and they went on to win the All-Ireland.
“They were mammoth battles,” recalls Donegal manager Bonner.
“At that time both teams were at that top table and there was always a real edge in the League, McKenna Cup, you name it.
“There was a great rivalry down the years and the Ulster final is a big occasion. People talk about getting rid of the provincial Championships and they might be done and dusted most years in Leinster and Munster. You have two or three teams (competing) in Connacht but our Championship is just so competitive.
“The rest are looking at us wishing they had a Championship like us. There are talking points and shocks and surprises and good football every year.”
Bonner's opposite number Gallagher was assistant to Jim McGuinness when Derry and Donegal met in the Ulster final in 2011. Donegal won by six points and Derry haven't been in a decider since.
But Bonner, who was in the first year of his first stint as manager when Derry won their last Anglo-Celt in 1998, insists the Oak Leafers are favourites to end their 24-year wait tomorrow.
“Derry are the form team,” he said.
“They have put two of the favourites out of the competition and we know that it is going to be a huge challenge and we will need to be at the best of our performance levels to clinch that Ulster title.”
Last year Paddy McBrearty broke Derry hearts with a screamer at the death and tomorrow's final will be another battle right to the wire.
The return to Clones has been a long time coming but it should be worth waiting for.