You could call it Donegal’s Séamus Darby moment, except that they weren’t chasing a Sam Maguire five in a row, merely one precious sup from the Anglo-Celt Cup.
Back in 1998, Ulster glory was still a relative rarity for a county that had won its maiden All-Ireland six years previously.
And for the entirety of that attritional, low-scoring, weather-besmirched affair, the outcome hung precariously in the balance.
It was 0-7 apiece approaching 70 minutes when Brendan Devenney, Donegal’s livewire rookie, jinked his way into a point-scoring position but pulled his shot wide.
From the next kickout, Derry won possession and Anthony Tohill looped onto a short pass to send a long punt in the direction of the inside-line. Enter big Geoffrey McGonagle, coming behind his man to win the ball.
Devenney’s recall? “Geoffrey nudged Noel McGinley in the back,” he still argues. “I’d say maybe nine times out of 10 it’s a free because he shoved him and you’ve seen the action, but the ref let him play and then it was a two-on-one.”
McGonagle’s riposte? “Your boy just wasn’t strong enough, as I would say. It was never a foul. Donegal were crying about that… I don’t care, I know I didn’t push in the back anyway.”
He adds: “I was only about 25 yards out and I was thinking, ‘I’ll tap this over’, and then all of a sudden (Joe) Brolly came into the picture.”
The rest is history: McGonagle fed his Dungiven clubmate who duly did what Joe Brolly did best, nonchalantly rounding Tony Blake to fire home the match-winning goal. Cue the obligatory ‘blowing kisses’ salute.
Here’s what else qualifies as history: Derry haven’t won an Ulster title since. They haven’t even reached a final since 2011, the same year Michael Murphy lifted the Anglo-Celt for the first of five such triumphs.
Now Donegal are back in the decider and will be joined in Clones this Sunday by Derry underdogs who have blazed a trail of shock destruction this past month, toppling Tyrone and then Monaghan.
Can Rory Gallagher achieve the perfect hat-trick? Not if Declan Bonner has his way.
And Bonner, wouldn’t you know, was not only the man who succeeded Gallagher in the Donegal hotseat five years ago but also, in a previous incarnation, the rookie boss for that Ulster final 24 years ago.
The Derry team that started in ’98 included six players who had lined up for the anthem when the county won its solitary All-Ireland in ’93.
Donegal included five starting survivors from the All-Ireland champions of ’92. It might have been six if injury hadn’t hastened Bonner’s retirement in ’97, only to parachute straight into the vacant position of county manager.
Bonner promptly promoted Devenney, who hit the senior ground running and, even in traumatic defeat to Derry, was deemed man of the match.
The newcomer’s only grievance about ’98, apart from McGonagle’s ‘nudge’, was a disallowed goal for John Duffy.
“The ref gave a free-out. Why, to this day, I’ll never know. That would have swung the game for us,” he maintains now.
Devenney never got closer to an Ulster medal, suffering further final defeats (to Armagh) in ’02 and ’04.
But whereas Donegal at least stayed competitive until the Jim McGuinness era arrived in all its glory, Derry fell away badly after being pipped by Armagh in the 2000 final.
“People say it’s the club thing, that boys didn’t get on and all this. But I don’t think that,” McGonagle maintains.
“Every time Derry played in Ulster, they always got Tyrone or Donegal, all the big hitters.
“They were handed the big draws and they always got beat out the gate.
“But last year kind of turned its head, because Derry should have beaten Donegal… and this year Derry have come on in leaps and bounds.
“I’d say they got that sense of belief from playing against Donegal last year; that they could have got something out of that game… but they’re there or thereabouts now, fair play to them.
“I’d give him (Gallagher) the most credit, but I’d give credit to the players too for knuckling down.”
Devenney is not surprised at his first manager’s capacity for reinvention.
Having led Donegal to Ulster titles at minor (2014) and U21 (2017) level, Bonner hit the ground running in his second senior stint with back-to-back Ulsters in ’18 and ’19.
“I’d say he’s only second to (Brian) McEniff in terms of what he’s put into the county,” says the player-turned-pundit, who now hosts the ‘DL Debate’ podcast on Highland Radio.
“I think he learned a lot. If you look at when he first took the job, football has gone from very much 15-on-15 stuff — the only thing you were doing then was pulling out the corner-forward as a third midfielder.
“It was just starting to change and in fairness to Bonner, when he went back with the under-age, he came back into modern management and he was ready.”
In more recent seasons, however, local criticism has intensified.
“Earlier in the league, I was giving off about people giving off!” Devenney remarks.
“There’s quite a nonsense up here building around what Donegal’s at. And I could see, with the Championship coming so close to the league, there had to be hard training in there. We also were missing loads of players.
“And the league’s the league. You know, you don’t need polished performances; you need to stay in the league and find out a few things and use players and rest players and get fitness up.”
To date, Donegal have come up with the required Championship answers, especially against Armagh, less so against Cavan, even if Derry’s form has grabbed all the headlines.
“The fact they had to beat Tyrone and Monaghan, it’s amazing they’re in the final but all that back story is leading to a fascinating encounter now,” Devenney concludes.