As I left the house to walk down to the bottom of the road, my Sperrin Metal Derry bag slung over my shoulder, the last thing my father said was: “I can’t see how Donegal can beat us today!”
It was July, 1992, and when I got onto the bus it was clear the lads shared my father’s view.
Six hours later, Martin McHugh, surrounded by about four of us, kicked over an impossible point from the left corner off his left foot and that was that.
My father’s career as a pundit hasn’t improved in the meantime. At least I hope it hasn’t. Sitting together in France last night, overlooking the Lac de Guerledan, he said: “I can’t see how we can beat Donegal on Sunday. I really can’t!”
The Ulster Final. Hard to believe we’re in it. I had started to think we might never get there again. Three weeks ago, a few moments after we had beaten Armagh with a thoroughly joyous display of Gaelic football, Faughanvale’s Ryan Feeney rang me. “I’m so happy” he said.
“I haven’t felt this sort of exhilaration since you scored that goal here in 1998. That’s all I wanted to say Joe.”
And with that he hung up. I can barely remember it. Yet in Donegal it is all I hear wherever I go. “U coulda let us have dat one in 98 u bollox,” Brendan Devenney texted me a month ago. “
“Now, we’ll get to da final and Arma will beat us .... again.” Brendan is another young man with punditry issues.
At te precise moment I scored that goal, I felt a tremendous relief flooding through me. Maybe it was that I had finally done Barry McGowan over, a magnificent under-rated footballer who had been my nemesis for a decade.
Once too often Barry joined a counter-attack. Only this time, the move broke down. When the ball came to me, all I could see was net as far as the human eye could stretch.
“Thank you God” I said to myself, “for what the Donegal goalie is about to receive,” before giving a few shimmies, stepping inside the other corner back’s dive and tipping it daintily to the net. I didn’t want to spoil it with a blaster.
“Don’t bother looking son,” I said to the Donegal keeper as I stepped over him on my way to the crowd, “it’s a goal all right!”
In a vivid illustration of the cruelty of life for corner backs, it is probably what Barry will be remembered for. For me, it felt like the end of my county journey.
A month or so later, there was an interesting incident at the GAA Ulster All-Stars’ night. In those days, before the Celtic Tiger and the recession, there was a free bar which was heavily over-subscribed. Jim McGuinness was a free spirit in those days, sporting a look like the young Che Guevara. His manager, Declan Bonner, was with him that night. As I was leaving, the two lads had each other in a headlock, wrestling around the foyer as a crowd of drunken footballers from various counties roared them on.
You wouldn’t have thought then that Jim would have matured into such a formidable and steely young man. The beauty of it is that he is ‘dyed in the wool.’ He loves Donegal football and Donegal people and has been particularly scathing about stereotyping of the county players.
Glenties, the under-21s, now the seniors: under-performing teams suddenly over-performing.
His senior group has lost just one competitive game this year, a league game which didn’t matter after they had already qualified for the final. They must also have been beaten by someone in the McKenna Cup, but can anyone remember who actually won that? True, they only scored 2-6 against Tyrone, but from the moment that the rejuvenated Kevin Cassidy kicked his heroic point in the first half, it just never felt like Donegal would be denied.
Tyrone’s missed chances were in truth mostly half chances, snatched efforts under immense pressure. Stephen O’Neill’s solo runs normally yield space and scores. On this occasion, he succeeded only in colliding with brick walls coloured yellow and green.
Stephen is a tee-totaller, but on the Monday morning he must have finally experienced what a hangover feels like. Donegal hung in against Tyrone in a way I have never seen any Donegal team hang in before. By rights they should have been out of it after 25 minutes. Instead, they were only just beginning.
Ditto for Derry?
Under John Brennan, Derry have, likewise, showed great resolve. Myself and big Danny Quinn went up to the training in Kilrea a fortnight ago. The funny thing was that the word “Donegal” was never mentioned.
We stood in the umpire’s spot and heard everything. Not once were Donegal referred to. The striking thing about the training was the happy atmosphere. The work was gruelling, but the lads chatted and cracked.
“There’s only one Joe Diver,” I shouted after the Bellaghy giant had taken a stupendous high catch.
“You better believe it, Brolly” he shouted back, beating his massive fist against his heart.
John came over to us and chatted a good while. Just behind his ear, it was hard not to notice Eoin Bradley kicking points from all angles with both feet. Myself and Dan went away not knowing what to make of it all.
The Ulster Final is a special day for both counties. I remember after a disco in Dungannon in the mid-eighties I ended up staying with the Grimes’ family in Donaghmore. The next morning, they were getting ready to head to Clones for the Ulster Final. All the talk was of McKenna and O’Hagan and McGuigan. All of them were wearing the Tyrone jerseys.
The packed lunches and the flasks were made up. “Do you want to come Joe? We have a spare ticket.”
I couldn’t resist. Half an hour later, I was on the road with them, as excited as they were . . . wearing a Tyrone jersey!
On Sunday, I will set off as usual with Seamus Armstrong from Gortnaghey, my oldest son, Rory and my father. Only this time, it will be Clones on Ulster Final day.
On this occasion, I sincerely hope and pray Francie is wrong.Again!