Still two miles from the pitch, the fields and lawns of Clones were filling up with cars. A large field had been mowed and there were at least 200 cars in it already. A young boy was sitting on a stool outside his bungalow holding a handwritten sign ‘Parking €5’. The cars were squeezed in all over the small front lawn, with no gaps between them.
Hello Joe.” “Hello kiddo. How many cars can you get in?” “One year we got 30.” “You’re joking. I see you’ve left no lanes for people to get out afterwards.” “Not my problem Joe.”
Welcome to Calcutta, Ireland.
I said to my young boy. “If we win, as soon as the whistle goes, we’ll jog to the car and beat the traffic.” At the final whistle, I found myself in the middle of the stampede over the dug out, clambering across it like a startled calf skidding over a cattle grid. Deep stuff the GAA.
If you are going to adopt the blanket defensive/counter-attacking game plan, best to hire one of the co-inventors. Both Tyrone and Monaghan had made the error of pushing up on Derry, and duly suffered the fate of Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, our hyperactive defenders and midfielders cutting through them at will and puncturing them with goals. As a result, those games were exciting and vibrant, with Derry scoring freely.
Donegal did not do this. Instead, they set up in the mirror image of Derry. In this situation, the spectator is in for the long haul, and the winner of the game is decided by a mistake or an extraordinary event. In the 2014 final, Kerry had seen what had happened to Dublin in the semi-final and absorbed the lesson. In that semi-final, the greatest team the game has seen were under the mistaken impression they could defy the laws of physics. Kerry were not about to make the same mistake and as a result, we were treated to the most boring All-Ireland final ever seen, the outcome decided by an errant kick from the Donegal ’keeper. I have had to put up with that Kieran Donaghy line ever since, like a comedian’s catchphrase haunting him.
I went for a drink with Kevin Cassidy in Gaoth Dobhair in the winter of 2011, a few months after their infamous semi-final. That day, Jimmy confiscated the players’ mobile phones (presumably for fear they would try to organise an escape before the throw-in). I was savaging Kevin over their tactics and he said, “To be fair Seosamh, if there are 25 men inside the 21, it’s going to be very hard for Diarmuid Connolly to score a goal.”
When two teams set up in this way and do it properly, the game is concertina’d into the last five minutes. There are long periods of not much happening. Then, as we approach the finale, a terrible tension fills the arena, and we are gripped.
Rory Gallagher sarcastically described Michael Murphy as “the Donegal manager” in the build-up to the game, which set the tone for a very rancorous sideline. The fourth official was constantly engaged in mediation. At one stage we heard him say to the Derry medic and physios, “You have to ask yourself whether your duty is to your manager or the integrity of your professions.” As it unfolded in front of us, we laughed nervously and raised our eyebrows. It was a documentary in itself, only adding to the almost unbearable tension.
The sun turns Clones into a bowl of dead heat, and I worried about our running game. I needn’t have. We rely heavily on our defenders for our defending and scoring/creating scores, and here again, they did not let us down. In the end, Donegal were exhausted. The decision to play Michael Murphy in the engine room of the game was a bad one. Derry targeted him throughout. Michael hasn’t the speed to stop the runner and once he went past, Derry had an overlap. He had a negligible impact on the game, jogging around in irrelevant areas of the field, handpassing the ball back to the man who gave it to him and occupying a space in the blanket. If he is to continue with the county, he needs to be stationed at full-forward. Had he stayed at 14, and Donegal kicked long to him, it would have exposed Brendan Rogers, who struggles in the air. As it was, he adopted the Aidan O’Shea role, inviting Rogers to run riot, and run riot he did, gleefully galloping past him for three crucial points.
Had it not been for our poor kick-out system we would have won easily. Our movement was poor and easily counteracted. The default (as in the Monaghan game) was long kicks to Conor Glass who was overmatched by a bigger man. Several kick-outs were sprayed over the sideline, and it was this kick-out failure that gave Donegal the opportunity to win. Because of this, we kept them in it until extra-time, when they eventually cracked, Rogers sprinting through like Forrest Gump for the umpteenth time to deliver the killer score.
And then, with 30 seconds to go, Kevin Cassidy’s words came true, when with 25 men inside the Derry square, it was impossible for even the great Michael Murphy to score the goal they needed. Almost the entire Derry team blocked the shot from the rebound. The triumphant, defiant charge upfield from that last possession brought me back to the finale in 1993. Then the whistle. After that a blur.
It was interesting to note the differing generational reactions to the game. I was sitting beside the Derry minors, and they thought the game was very entertaining. For anyone under 25, after all, this is the norm. They do not know what the game was like before. Before Jimmy sacrificed the spectacle in the cause of winning at all costs. Before he replaced man-to-man contests with the cold hard laws of physics.
Afterwards, walking through the throngs, I came upon Damian Cassidy, sitting in the back of his stationary car like the Belgian ambassador, his son Peter chauffeuring his famous father. “Awful spectacle,” he said, “but great to win.” I agreed (waves of elation were coursing through me even the next morning) and made the point to him that young people know nothing else and would be surprised if they heard us say that. “What are you talking about Joe?” he said to me. “My young boy is only after saying it was a great game. I told him to catch himself on.” We both laughed. Peter blushed. Two minutes later, a text from Colm ‘Scillaci’ McGurk: “Great win Joseph. Terrible advert for football.” Or put another way, by solicitor and veteran Derry watcher Paddy McGurk, as we danced up and down on the pitch afterwards, “Woeful shite, but who gives a f**k?”
The rule makers have refused to act, other than irrelevant tinkering. This is now the game. Over the last three years there was a sense that teams were voluntarily moving towards a more adventurous approach. However, as Kilcoo and now Derry have shown, done properly, this type of system works brilliantly. And with an obsessive perfectionist like Rory Gallagher orchestrating things, Derry’s system works brilliantly. Like James O’Donoghue in the 2014 final, Paddy McBrearty didn’t even get a shot off.
It was the biggest Derry crowd I have ever seen. Bigger than our glory days, when a hardcore followed us everywhere, and a testament to the great underage work being done throughout the county, pushing participation in our games to unprecedented heights. I think I saw every Derry person I ever knew, from men in their 80s to children of men I played with. When I got back to the car, there were tears in my eyes.
Six or so miles outside Calcutta, driving at an average speed of 4mph, I stopped at the Coranney Inn, just before the spot in Cooneen where Seán South was killed. I went into the bar and a huge roar went up. In 1997, after we had won our last senior county title, Kieran McKeever and I stopped in Greysteel, at the Rising Sun Bar. In October 1993, a few weeks after we won our All-Ireland against Cork, that small bar was the location of one of the worst massacres of the Troubles. Three loyalist gunmen came through the door in balaclavas, shouted “Trick or Treat” and machine gunned the bar, killing eight men, women and teenagers. Four years later, Kieran and I sat in the half empty snug, drinking a few pints in more or less silence, soaking in what we had just achieved.
In the Corraney Inn on Sunday afternoon, my mind went back to that evening in the Rising Sun and I felt the same sensation. I drove home in silence and felt so good I didn’t even go to Maghera for the celebrations. Deep stuff the GAA. Very, very deep.