All those blighted dawns that Antrim have endured for the past six years in the Ulster Championship — and for 57 years in total against Donegal in particular — were suddenly erased in spectacular fashion at Ballybofey yesterday when the Saffrons ascended a new peak after a seemingly interminable incarceration in a footballing limbo.
If we thought that Down’s comeuppance against Fermanagh was mildly surprising and that the Ernesiders’ subsequent capitulation to unsung Cavan was a defiant swipe at the formbook, then events at MacCumhaill Park have now all but defied logic.
Donegal, virtually unbackable and perceived as having their passport all but stamped into the Ulster final never mind the last four, were not so much beaten as totally desecrated by an Antrim side whose strategy was hewn from obduracy and whose unquenchable spirit was simply from another planet.
The Antrim players, clearly bonded by the challenge of going to war with friends, emanated a collective body language that bore the distinct residue of anger built up via a succession of unseemly failures to get past first base in the provincial flagship competition.
Now the tide has turned — and who’s to say that Bradley’s boys will not make more waves when they square up to Cavan on Saturday week.
For the moment, though, all is sweetness and light in Antrim.
They may have plied their trade in a raft of unpromising places both in league and championship up until the start of this year but pride has been restored, optimism has been spawned and the memory of spineless displays in the not too distant past now seems clouded in gentle mockery.
Skill, allied to intelligence and integrity, ensured that all the demons were slain against a Donegal side that, while initially offering a tantalising promise of redemption on paper, all but failed to leave the starting traps.
Bradley, of course, set his stall out cleverly, withdrawing Terry O’Neill from his attack to bolster the half-back line, pushing Michael McCann up to full-forward and deploying the impressive Justin Crozier in a holding role while allowing Tomas McCann free rein.
It was a masterly game-plan, fashioned by a calculating boss and executed by an honest and obedient team.
If their tendency to err on the side of generosity when it came to conceding possession threatened on occasions to greviously compromise their chances, it was not to prove a fatal flaw —not with their willingness to track back, to throw their bodies on the line and to eventually inflict mortal wounds on their hosts’ morale.
Even the fact that they lost goalkeeper Sean McGreevy with what appeared to be a pulled muscle in the eighth minute after making a fine save from Collie Dunne did not impinge on Antrim’s buoyancy.
Peter Graham came on, the defence tightened up further — and the preparatory work for what is today perceived as a sporting miracle became fully operational.
Yet Donegal managed to take the lead for the first time in the match just on the stroke of half-time when the impressive Michael Murphy, operating in a two-man full-forward line alongside Colm McFadden, potted his fourth point to secure a 0-6 to 0-5 advantage, Rory Kavanagh landing their other two points.
Antrim’s robust work-rate and feisty tackling kept Donegal under pressure but the visitors still lacked real cohesion up front although skipper Paddy Cunningham and Thomas McCann managed to carry a threat when fed decent possession.
Cunningham, indeed, and Aodhan Gallagher had fired over early points for the visitors before McCann and his brother Michael scored from placed balls and then Cunningham again was on target to keep the Saffrons ticking over.
But it was when Tony Scullion, Justin Crozier and Tomas McCann in particular put their handwriting on virtually every Antrim movement of note in the second-half that the statisticians began to burrow for the record books.
They saw the warning signs — Donegal’s abysmal 18 wides, their anaemic midfield, a 20-minute scoring famine and the lack of real fire in their bellies.
Antrim? They coolly pocketed four points between the 37th and 49th minutes and when Tomas McCann blasted in the only goal of the game in the 58th minute, he simply rubber-stamped his folk-hero status.
The Saffrons may have lived dangerously as they negotiated the nervous tides of the closing segment — Colm McFadden’s brace of points aligned to scores from Christy Toye and skipper Kavanagh had hinted at an act of grand larceny by the home side — but Bradley’s boys, taking their inspiration from Kevin O’Boyle’s wondrous long-range 68th minute point, held their shape and their composure to attach their imprimatur to one of their county’s most significant results in Ulster history.
DONEGAL: P Durcan; E McGee, N McGee, K Lacey; B Dunnion, K Cassidy, M McGuire; N Gallagher, B Boyle; C Bonner (0-1), M Hegarty, R Kavanagh (capt ), (0-3), C Dunne, M Murphy (0-5, 0-4 frees), C McFadden (0-2, both frees). Substitutes: C Toye (0-1) for Dunnion (half-time), B Roper for Hegarty (45 mins), D Walsh for Dunne (51), F McGlynn for Boyle (55).
ANTRIM: S McGreevy; D McCann, A McLean, C Brady; J Loughrey, J Crozier, T Scullion; A Gallagher (0-1), M McCann (0-1, free); N McKeever, K Brady (0-1), T O’Neill; T McCann (1-2, 0-1 ‘45’), S Burke, P Cunningham (capt) (0-4, 0-3 frees). Substitutes: P Graham for McGreevy (8 mins), K O’Boyle (0-1) for D McCann (44 mins), H Niblock for Burke (49), C Close for Brady (52), B Hasson for McKeever (62.)
Referee: Padraig Hughes (Armagh)