Maxi Curran said recently that he would take Donegal’s loss to Cavan in the 2014 Ulster U-21 final to the grave with him, so tonight’s loss in this year’s showpiece will leave similar scars.
In injury time, his Donegal side and Tyrone were level. With Donegal in possession having come back from three points down in the final seven minutes, it was that excitable stage of a football match where every turnover is cheered with the same vociferousness and fervency as a point or a goal.
Captain Ryan McHugh opted to go long after Conor Parke appeared to be fouled. Maybe afterwards it was a case of the cat and the spilt milk but the ball bobbled wide and Tyrone could build again.
Their kick-out had been the foundation of their night’s work; one that had seemed like it would take them to a first Ulster U-21 championship in nine years, before they appeared to have lost their way.
Shifting the ball through the hands, Cathal McShane was bumped to the ground by Ciaran Thompson as he had just taken a look at the posts. Daniel McNulty fired over and moments later Donegal had been beaten at the bitter end by the bare minimum.
They slumped to their knees in dejection as Tyrone supporters gleefully stormed onto the pitch to congratulate the victors. The contrast under the floodlit sky was as stark as it could’ve been.
The one-point defeat, which was in fact Donegal’s third final loss in the U-21 provincial championships - the most cut-throat competition of all - came at Celtic Park in Derry. The scenes were almost identical to those at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh exactly a year ago.
That night Cavan trailed Donegal by two points, 0-8 to 1-3, when Liam Buchanan stroked home a 58th minute goal and the whole outlook of the contest changed direction and never would turn back.
Four minutes later, the Breffni County were celebrating their fourth Ulster in succession on a 2-6 to 0-8 scoreline as Donegal were left with the blues.
In 2013, Donegal went down against Cavan, 0-13 to 1-6, at Enniskillen. In terms of losses it was hard to take, although immensely more routine than what was the follow.
Parke, Ryan and Eoin McHugh, Willie Gillespie and Darach O’Connor would’ve felt the same despair as their manager three times on the bounce.
A bit like the golfer trying to get his swing right, sometimes the more you try the harder it gets. Donegal looked capable of cutting Tyrone when they got running at them but on the flipside could well have been more than the 1-6 to 0-6 they were down at the interval.
A ninth minute goal from Conor Meyler was the difference between the teams - on the scoreboard at least - by the changing of ends. It was a well-constructed move, certainly the best of the half from either participant, as the Omagh St Enda’s forward drove past Danny Rodgers after a neat give and go with Lee Brennan.
Donegal stood off and were perhaps a little too much in their shell, although Eoin McHugh started brightly with two points and O’Connor got away from Ruairí Mullan to fire over.
Hugh McFadden was having mixed fortune from his efforts on goal, the majority of which came from placed balls. Over the course of the hour and a bit he scored five and missed five.
Tyrone, who lost wing-back Ciaran McLaughlin to a black card before the break, were keeping Donegal at arm’s length from not long after Meyler’s goal and that trend continued into the second half, although Curran’s side were performing with a little more zip.
Stephen McBrearty and Eamonn McGrath’s introduction helped the assisted the improvement.
Having defeated Cavan 1-7 to 0-9 with a last minute Ryan McHugh goal and then hop-scotched through Monaghan 4-9 to 1-5 on the Healy Park puddles, Donegal’s vintage of 2015 had shown their abilities to press until the end in circumstances that might’ve varied.
The pitch in Derry was sandy and although that entailed an increasing heaviness on the legs it was Donegal who were growing in strength.
They tightened up their shape and were fighting their way back into the match. But every so often there were mistakes that would hamper Donegal. Thompson - perhaps the best player in the run to the final - kicked a free short, there were chances missed and Eoghan Ban Gallagher was unfortunate to see Ruairí McGlone pinch his handpass from a short Rodgers kick-out but fortunate to see the Tyrone corner-forward take his point and not a goal.
That made the score 1-9 to 0-9 for Tyrone; firming up the notion of Feargal Logan’s team keeping Donegal at a semi-manageable distance. Lee Brennan was keeping the scoreboard ticking over and with 53 minutes played Tyrone were still three in front, this time at 1-10 to 0-10 following points at either end from McFadden and then McNulty.
Two points in as many minutes, with McGrath and then O’Connor on target, meant suddenly Donegal only trailed by one with five to go.
Ninety seconds remained when McBrearty levelled and Donegal, one would’ve thought, would either win it at the death or be the team that entered extra-time in the ascendency.
They looked to find a way as Tyrone, who were undoubtedly the better team for the longer spells but the one panicking come the conclusion, camped and tried frantically to zip up their tents. However, from one last and brave attack, Tyrone worked themselves into position and McNulty did the rest.
It was a dramatic victory and a heartbreaking defeat. For Donegal, there was to be no fairytale ending - just a repeat of a nightmare.
Donegal: Danny Rodgers; Conor Morrison, Conor Parke, Jack O’Brien; Darragh Mulgrew, Ryan McHugh, Eoghan Ban Gallagher; Tony McClenaghan, Hugh McFadden (0-5, 4f); Oisin Crawford, Lorcan Connor, Ciaran Thompson (0-1, 1f); Willie Gillespie (0-1), Darach O’Connor (0-2), Eoin McHugh (0-2). Subs: Eamonn McGrath (0-1) for Morrison (half-time), Stephen McBrearty (0-1) for McClenaghan (half-time), Jamie Brennan for Connor (54), Cian Mulligan for Crawford (55), Caolan McGonagle for Gillespie (58).
Tyrone: Sean Fox; Ruairi Mullan, Padraig Hampsey, Michael Cassidy (0-1); Ciaran McLaughlin, Ruairi Brennan, Kieran McGeary; Frank Burns, Cathal McShane (0-1); Conor Meyler (1-0), Mark Kavanagh, Matthew Walsh; Lee Brennan (0-4, 2f), Daniel McNulty (0-4, 3f), Ruairi McGlone (0-1). Subs: Ruairi Kelly for McLaughlin (black card, 28), Mark Bradley for McGlone (45 ), Sean McKenna for Burns (57), Peter McKenna for Kavanagh (black card, 58).
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan).