The vast majority of neutrals felt St. Eunan’s would be too strong; even at half-time that was the viewpoint in MacCumhaill Park, but sport has a way of turning things on its head.
If you were told that Naomh Conaill would have to play with 14 for the final 22 minutes and were two points in arrears, the odds on them taking home the Dr. Maguire would have increased significantly.
But what is it about teams having a man sent off? The effort of the Naomh Conaill players multiplied and with a leader in the mould of Paul O’Connell, they put their shoulder to the wheel and were worthy winners.
Leo McLoone was an easy choice for man of the match. He was just a man-mountain, not just for the period that Naomh Conaill were down to 14, but throughout. The timing of his pass for Brendan McDyer’s point on the stroke of half-time being a case in point - he was on his game.
There is something good about the outcome of a sports event when the winners overcome adversity. Apart from losing the final three years ago, the Naomh Conaill club were put through the ringer last year over an appeal.
For young Eoghan McGettigan it was a day to forget with the red card. Nobody seemed to know what had happened, but referee Andrew Mullin seemed very sure of the information he received. After watching the incident on TG4 on Sunday night it was inconclusive. The footage didn’t catch all of the event. From what was shown, it was not clear that any red card offence was committed. What was surprising, after reviewing the pushing and shoving, was that no St. Eunan’s player received any card! As we have now learned it could have been worse if referee Mullin had carried through with his threat to black card Brendan McDyer and Johnny McLoone. That could have led to serious trouble.
Both sides were good at winning primary possession up front with Rory Carr and Leon Thompson outstanding in this regard while Brendan McDyer was really lively despite his knee injury.
But going forward, Naomh Conaill will have to get a greater return to make an impact in Ulster. While the Naomh Conaill substitutions worked really well, I was surprised to see John O’Malley being taken off as he was linking defence and attack very well.
On the other hand, the St. Eunan’s substitutions did not work and the fact that Conor Gibbons was brought back on after being substituted seemed strange, given the strength of the Letterkenny bench.
There is no doubt, though, that the Letterkenny men will be back and will probably be favourites again next year. That is just something they have to live with and with their unprecedented success at underage this year they will be the team to beat for many years to come.
One notable aspect of the game which came to my notice when looking at the match on Sunday night on TV was the sportsmanship of Conor Parke in shaking the hand of young Ethan O’Donnell when the county minor came on with less than ten minutes of normal time left. That is something that has gone from the game, especially in championship, with substitutes either trying to make their presence felt or being met with a ‘welcome to the game’ shoulder.
On the other side of the coin, to see a St. Eunan’s player clapping young McGettigan after he was sent off is something which we can do without.
Naomh Conaill now carry Donegal hopes into Ulster and the county must get behind them. They play Tyrone champions Trillick on Sunday week at home and they have the capability to advance to the semi-final at the very least.
Peter Campbell, Sports Editor