Maybe it was written in the stars - with the last grain of sands from their season appearing to have fallen through the egg-timer at the Hospital Field on Sunday, the Watson Hire Division One trophy was slipping through Donegal Town’s collective fingertips.
The top two in the division were meeting on the final day and it was Curragh Athletic, who began the afternoon in second place and were a precarious two points behind their hosts, that had scored the only goal.
Whilst the visitors from Killygordon had travelled through Barnesmore with the deficit on the league table, their mandate was the clearer one.
Donegal Town might be stuck between the two stools of pushing on for the win or trying to play out a draw. Only three points would do for Curragh.
In front of an excitable crowd, Donegal Town settled faster and Conor Rooney had a couple of early opportunities to provide the nerve settler.
It was a windy afternoon and the elements might’ve taken a little from a quality of the play, whilst simultaneously supplementing to the level of intrigue.
The second of Rooney’s opportunities, on nine minutes, came after Benny Byrne had picked the lock but Emmet McNulty in the Curragh goals made an important save.
On 14 minutes, though, from their first meaningful attack, Curragh edged in front. When Michael O’Brien clipped in a free-kick, Ryan Carlin teed up Eddy Moore to put Curragh in front on the day and, more importantly, on the league table.
It was their 50th league goal of the season - more than any other club in the division. Donegal Town were living nervously and Carlin then struck the crossbar for Curragh before teammate Garbhan Gallagher headed off the post with 25 minutes left.
Danny McGarrigle’s effort with five minutes remaining for Donegal Town was saved by Roy Duffy. Time was running out.
“I just couldn’t see it coming,” Donegal Town manager Rory Dunleavy said of the chances of an equaliser. “I really had given up the ghost. There must’ve been maybe 93 or 94 minutes played. We’d shown resilience all season but we just weren’t getting a sniff.”
With just one kick off the ball between them after a full season of football it was a nervy finale as time ticked from black the red.
With no option but to go for broke the home team piled men forward. A ball into the crowded penalty area was nodded down by Benny Byrne and Declan Brown drove home, under Duffy in the Curragh goal. The place went wild.
“I never experienced anything like it,” Dunleavy added. “It was some finish. I shook the hand of the Curragh manager Sean Carlin afterwards and I could only imagine what he was thinking. I had sympathy for him.”
Since going down 2-1 to Ballybofey United in late January, Donegal Town had won six on the spin.
The last three of those wins, away matches against Cranford United, Keadue Rovers and Eany Celtic, were every little bit as important as the draw they picked up on Sunday.
“We had three separate away games before Curragh came,” Dunleavy added. “In the Cranford and Eany matches we had to come from behind to win 2-1 and against Cranford we were being held 1-1 and facing a huge wind.
“But Danny McGarrigle got a winner and that was the day, the fourth last game of the season, we knew we could win the league.”
Curragh had beaten Donegal Town 4-0 earlier in the season although the side from the Diamond did claim there was a bit of an asterisk beside the result. Donegal Town were weakened as Four Masters played Naomh Conaill at O’Donnell Park in Letterkenny in the Raidió na Gaeltachta SFC semi-final in late October.
“We were missing a lot of men but lost the game,” Dunleavy continued. “From our point of view we had a good excuse but it was important for us to disregard that result and make sure the players didn’t dwell on it.”
Whilst Curragh were defeated only once all season Donegal went down three times in all but tellingly, Sunday’s draw was only their second of the whole season. Both teams will now go into the Premier Division alongside one another.
It was Donegal Town’s first Division One title success since 1996-97 and after their place in the Brian McCormick Sports Cup final last season, when they went down 2-0 to Gweedore Celtic, maintaining a top flight place will do for next year.
“Going into the match on Sunday we had a two-point cushion and that of course helped,” Dunleavy added. “At the same time, Curragh knew exactly what they wanted so there was always an element of danger. But we got the result and we were delighted to do so.
“Things went in our favour from time to time but we’re back where we want to be. We last got promoted three seasons ago but failed to hold onto our place so that’s the aim for next year.
“We will be happy to consolidate and if we can keep the nucleus of the squad together then we will have a good chance of that.”
Watson Hire Division One table
Donegal Town FC 18 13 3 2 40 19 21 41
Curragh Athletic FC 18 11 1 6 50 12 38 39
Cranford FC 18 10 6 2 43 25 18 32
Cappry Rovers 18 9 6 3 39 25 14 30
Eany Celtic FC 18 9 6 3 34 26 8 30
Drumoghill FC 18 8 8 2 32 33 -1 26
Keadue Rovers FC 17 6 6 5 32 31 1 23
Ballybofey United FC 17 3 8 6 20 35 -15 15
Arranmore United 18 3 14 1 17 49 -32 10
Raphoe Town 18 1 15 2 15 67 -52 5