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GAA: Ulster Championship battle shaping up to be one of the best

 

By Declan Bogue

When you lie back and incline into the history of the Ulster Championship, the memories provide one of those 'Wonder Years' sequences of images, life flashing by you in jumpy, snatched, grainy images.

Of being on the old grassy bank in Clones as an infant in the early 80's. Being there on the stone slats of the old Gerry Arthurs Stand as the rumblings of an Ulster revolution was beginning by the tail end of that decade.

Teenage years spent stewing in a bus before you experimented by mixing football and alcohol, way too much testosterone on the scene altogether, until you reach the relatively calm shores of adulthood on the other side.

The final enduring image of the 2016 Ulster Championship was of a beaming Mickey Harte inside the cordon of security guards, the sun splitting every stone in St Tiernach's Park. His grandchildren battled to take their turn in his arms, his players scarcely believing it as they ended six barren years without a provincial title.

And what did it come down to in the end for them? Skills and courage. When the game was in the balance against Donegal, Tyrone's substitute defender Johnny Monroe barrelled into Colm McFadden. A free in for Donegal would have stretched their lead to two with three minutes left.

Instead, the ball went up the other end of the field. Sean Cavanagh was shunted around the place like a dodgem car and in the act of falling, peeled off a shot that should have balooned wide, but instead caught a favourable breeze and dropped over the crossbar like a meteor.

A couple of minutes later, Peter Harte scooped a loose ball outside the periphery of the Donegal defence, all of 55 metres out, and launched a kick that took every muscle in his body moving in perfect synchronicity to make the kind of contact it did.

It flew over with a dozen yards at least to spare. There hasn't been a sweeter contact seen between boot leather and ball leather.

Prior to the final whistle, Donegal manager Rory Gallagher graciously made his way up the sideline to congratulate the winning Ulster coach for the second consecutive year.

The decisive plays were typical of a Championship season where everything hung on an edge.

Like the semi-final between Donegal and Monaghan, their fourth consecutive meeting in the Ulster Championship, having faced each other in the three previous finals.

With nothing left to give, they drew on the first day. The replay in Cavan was not screened live and as such has grown in myth and rumour, a few moments of fun such as the pantomime booing of Donegal selector Maxi Curran and his runs across the pitch helping to release some pressure on a tense evening.

That night, the Donegal defence uncharacteristically gifted two goals - one a penalty and the other a case of falling asleep as Conor McManus slid Conor McCarthy through for a goal with a quick free kick.

Although Donegal assumed control once more and led by three points going down the stretch, a late mistake by Karl Lacey let McCarthy through on goal again.

He produced an audacious chip over the head of Donegal goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley. But the ball clipped the crossbar and was soon ushered to calmer waters.

Fine margins. Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke is fond of telling the story of Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who slung a tightrope between the Twin Towers and crossed it in 1974.

Up there, O'Rourke would tell his players, is living.

Anything else is just hanging around.

For some, their days playing football can never be replaced. Only for the legacy of nasty injuries, an interest in coaching or just knowing their time is up, some would still be playing such as Martin Shovelin, the 1990 Ulster Footballer of the Year who was still turning out for his club, Naomh Ultan, a couple of weeks ago at 56.

The names leave the stage. The Rory Kavanaghs, the Eamonn McGees, Conor Gormleys, Oisín McConvilles, Paul Finlays.

Some cannot go on forever. Sean Cavanagh has already indicated this will be his final season. A poor Championship and we cannot be guaranteed that Mickey Harte's 26 years of managing Tyrone teams at various grades could continue.

What remains after all is the memories. The skills, the courage, the dirt, the culture and the kind of thrills and tension that leaves everyone in a crowd of over 30,000 feeling slightly sick.

They can restructure the All-Ireland Championship whatever way they like, but nothing can match up to the history and legend of the Ulster Championship.

We look ahead to this summer, anticipate the clashes, build our lives and conversations around the rhythms of the Anglo-Celt Cup.

Will Derry have any heart left in them or will they capitulate in their home of Celtic Park once more to a Tyrone team stung by their league finish?

Newry is hosting an Ulster Championship game once more after decades without (the 2008 replay against Tyrone notwithstanding). And as luck would have it, it is Armagh that are coming to town to face Down.

The rivalry between these two could be best summed up by a recent anecdote involving what Down's DJ Kane said to Armagh's Cathal O'Rourke when O'Rourke's younger brother Aidan came in as a Down selector under James McCartan. "What must your poor mother and father think?" asked Kane. Best of all, that is merely the appetiser. Should things go to plan then we have our consolations.

Donegal and Tyrone are set to collide in an Ulster semi-final. How could you not get your teeth into that?

And on the final day, Monaghan will be there against either of the two aforementioned. Again, nothing to lose, everything to gain.

Summer's here.

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