The countryside around Clones became a sea of colour yesterday as thousands of GAA fans descended on the small Monaghan town for one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the year.
The mighty machine of Mickey Harte’s Tyrone met underdog rivals Antrim for the Ulster Senior Football Final in a David and Goliath match of epic proportions.
The young Antrim players taking to the field at St Tiernach’s Park would not even have been born when their predecessors last played an Ulster final in 1970.
Only some of those watching in the crowd would have been able to remember the sting of that defeat to Derry.
Many more would have been too young to witness or even remember Antrim’s last win in 1951.
For Tyrone, as All-Ireland champions and 2007 Ulster title holders, a loss would have been inconceivable, and the bookies agreed, with the odds stacked firmly against Antrim.
No-one had told that to the army of Antrim fans whose exodus began early on Sunday morning.
The roads from Belfast were thick with cars, vans and minibuses excitedly flying banners and flags.
And the impatience to get to the ground was only heightened as the highway from Monaghan to Clones almost ground to a standstill under the weight of traffic.
For many Antrim followers just being there for an Ulster final was enough of a rare treat and many savoured the occasion with a pint or two en route to the stand at St Tiernach’s.
One keen Antrim fan was up at the crack of dawn to ensure a parking spot as well as a good vantage point on the terrace known as The Hill.
“It’s a hugely historic day for us, I’m just glad to be here,” he said.
A tense build-up with the Minor Football Final between Down and Armagh got the crowd’s appetite whetted for the main event of the day.
And true to the significance of the occasion an ear-splitting roar greeted the Antrim players as they ran, almost tumbling, excitedly onto the pitch.
A brisk start by Antrim failed to materialise into the hoped-for magic, and Tyrone soon took a decisive lead with the kind of solid, disciplined game which has seen them take title after title in recent years.
Despite a spirited comeback by Antrim in the second half, the might of Tyrone won the day in a convincing performance which showed some of their best talents. The Tyrone fans were gracious in victory, however, and a three cheers and a round of applause were offered for their defeated rivals.
For the Antrim club elders yesterday’s match was a chance to bring a taste of top level competition and perhaps an opportunity for success to a new generation of young fans. But despite their lack of success, their team’s spirited performance alone ensured that this would be a game and a day out to remember for many years to come.
Drama and a sense of occasion
Reporter Matthew McCreary reports from his first ever visit to a GAA match. He looks at what makes the sport so special to many people across the world
Even for a non-GAA follower — and an avowed non-sports player — the atmosphere and excitement of yesterday’s Ulster Final was not wasted.
And just one afternoon on the terraces such as this can give an insight into the history and resounding appeal of the game.
Antrim’s inability to make it this far for almost 40 years — and even longer to win the title — belies their past successes, of which many fans are still proud.
They were the first Ulster team to make it to an All-Ireland Final in 1911, and in a powerhouse period between 1908 and 1913 they were the Ulster champions six times in a row. Only patchy appearances would follow in the years to come.
Had they known their last Ulster title would be won in 1951, the club might well have struggled to maintain the fans’ interest over the following six decades. Indeed it would be hard to imagine an equivalent team in football or rugby managing to keep gate numbers high in the wake of such a run of bad luck.
Yet GAA fans are a loyal bunch, and this was no better demonstrated than the thousands of people, young and old, who braved the choked roads to Clones to cheer on their team.
An Ulster final is truly a family event, as grandmothers and their grandchildren made the journey to see the game — one family of Tyrone fans in the stand even spanning four generations.
And it was a family affair on the pitch too as the line-ups of each team included four sets of brothers, three from Tyrone and one from Antrim. The intensity of a top-level GAA game such as this speaks to the heart of the Irish love affair with drama, competition and a sense of occasion.
It is an appeal which transcends borders and oceans, with fans in their thousands to be counted as far away as America and Australia.
And the close-knit atmosphere on the terraces also bears testimony to the bond of enjoyment which exists between the followers of the game — whatever the colour they might be wearing.