Donegal and Derry are chasing the biggest prize in Ulster football when they lock horns on Sunday in the Ulster Senior Football championship final at St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones.
Donegal are bidding for a first final victory in 19 seasons while Derry are hoping to end a 13 season barren harvest from the last time they won the Anglo Celt Cup in 1998. Ironically, that last Oak Leaf success was at the expense of Sunday’s opponents Donegal, when a last gasp Joe Brolly, goal after Geofrey McGonagle got away with a slight nudge on Donegal corner back Noel McGinley, to see Derry snatch their fifth Ulster crown at the death with two points to spare.
Derry have only appeared in one final since - 2000 when they lost to Armagh - while Donegal have had three unsuccessful attempts at claiming a sixth Ulster crown losing all three 2002, 2004 and 2006 to Armagh.
Donegal defeated Derry with five points to spare 1-13 to 0-11, in the ‘06 semi-final while Derry were winners by two points, 0-14 to 0-12, in the first round meeting in 2008, while Donegal came out on top in the last meeting between the sides in the All-Ireland qualifier in 2009, 2-13 to 0-18 after extra time.
Kevin Cassidy, Colm McFadden, Karl Lacey, Paul Durcan, Michael Hegarty and Rory Kavanagh are all Donegal survivors from back in 2006, while Kevin McGuckin, Joe Diver, Mark Lynch, Barry McGoldrick and Enda Muldoon are the Derry men still around from five years ago. And they have all featured at some stage in the two meetings since.
The most recent gbarometer as to where the two teams stand in the pecking order was their Division Two league meeting in Celtic Park, at the end of March. Donegal took the points and the bragging rights on that occasion with a champagne performance on a 2-18 to 2-12 scoreline. Donegal came from behind after been hit with an early goal and point from stand-in full-forward Caolan O’Boyle. Michael Murphy with 1-7 and Colm McFadden with 1-4 did the business in front of the posts in what has been one of Donegal’s best performances so far this year.
It will not be lost on Derry manager John Brennan that Jim McGuinness and his men abandonded their much maligned defensive game after being hit with Boyle’s early sucker goal and point. It will, no doubt, not go unnoticed by Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher either, while they are expected to field of up to 13 of their Celtic Park starters, Derry will be much changed from that night back in March.
Only Danny Devlin in goals, Dermot McBride in defence, Michael Friel, Sean Leo McGoldrick, Enda Muldoon, Conleth Gilligan and Cialan O’Boyle, who featured in that league encounter, faced Armagh last time out in the championship. It is also worth noting that neither Paddy or Eoin Bradley played in the Celtic Park encounter.
And with both out injured (Eoin joining big brother Paddy at the weekend with a suspected cruciate) the Bradleys are not going to figure either on Sunday. Former team captain Gerard O’Kane is Derry’s only other reported injury concern while Jim McGuinness and Donegal biggest fears centre on the midfield pairing of Rory Kavanagh and Kevin Rafferty.
Kavanagh is struggling to shake off an ankle injury that has bothered him for some time while Kavanagh’s club colleague has a nagging groin problem.
Worryingly both have taken very little part in training in the last week. Donegal have taken the scenic route to the final with an easy preliminary round victory over Antrim in Ballybofey, followed by an equally comfortable quarter-final win over Cavan in Kingspan Breffni Park. In the semi-final Donegal snatched a late narrow win over reigning champions Tyrone.
Derry are in the final on the back of comprehensive first round win over Fermanagh before blowing a highly fancied Armagh away in the semi-final thanks to a goal scoring blitz from Eoin Bradley, Mark Lynch and Conleth Gilligan. By virtue of their victory over Tyrone and now the loss of the main spark in the Derry attack, Eoin Bradley, Donegal will enter Sunday’s tie as favourites to end the long and barren harvest. One thing’s for sure, barring a draw come 6pm on Sunday, for the first time since 1998 a name other than Armagh and Tyrone will be on the Anglo Celt Cup