Donegal made it an historic three-in-a-row Ulster Minor League titles with a heart-stopping late victory over a resilient Tyrone in a thrilling final in Maghera on Saturday.
A last gasp goal from wingback Aiden McLaughlin in the 63rd minute snatched victory for Donegal to seal a truly exciting affair, where both sides made light of a swirling wind to serve up some attractive football.
But, despite considerable dominance, Donegal almost kicked themselves out of this competition with a staggering 14 wides and eight shots dropped into the Tyrone keeper’s hands.
In truth it would have been a real heartbreaker but it looked like Tyrone had pulled off the greatest piece of grand larceny since the Great Train Robbery of 1963 with two minutes of injury time played.
A sucker punch goal from classy corner forward Daniel Kerr put Tyrone ahead by 1-13 to 2-9, his low shot crept into the net between Tir Conaill keeper Gavin Mulreany and the post.
Donegal attacked in waves but team captain Niall O’Donnell, “the best county minor since Michael Murphy” according to one journo, hesitated and was caught in possession.
His talented fellow striker Eoghan McGettigan also dithered and hit a few bad wides as Donegal fans braced themselves for a real sickening journey home.
But to their eternal credit, Shaun Paul Barrett’s boys showed true grit and were rewarded when towering midfielder Jason McGee pierced the Red Hand defence and found McLaughlin who crashed the ball confidently to the roof of the net.
It was no more than they deserved against a plucky Tyrone side who were hit with two hammer blow goals from O’Donnell in the 10th and 33rd minutes to give Donegal a real advantage.
But the Red Hands never yielded and kept hitting priceless points on the break, as squander mania seemed to afflict the winners.
McGee and the almost equally towering Ciaran Gallagher gave the winners a good foothold in the centre of the pitch while O’Donnell and McGettigan were a formidable attacking force up front.
Centre back J D Boyle had a fine game also while Peadar Mogan was also a tireless forager.
For Tyrone, Kerr was a deadly opportunist, while wing back Peter Og McCartan looked threatening on the break and Thomas Carney was a penetrative centre forward.
Donegal played into the breeze in the opening half and McGee and Gallagher managed to halt several Tyrone attacks in their infancy.
The key score in the half was a wonderfully finished goal from the towering O’Donnell who played a clever one-two with McGettigan before blasting the ball to the roof of the net in the 10th minute.
It put Donegal into a 1-1 to 0-2 lead and gave Donegal the impetus for the remainder of the half.
Patient approach into the breeze made many chances, but time and again, shots were landed tamely into the arms of the Tyrone keeper.
Carney, McNabb and Paul Donaghy kept the Red Hands in touch as Donegal turned over with a 1-5 to 0-6 interval.
The opening seven minutes of the second half got off to an explosive start, as Tyrone hit three lightning points from Kerr and Cathair Goodwin to go into a 0-9 to 1-5 lead by the 32nd minute.
60 seconds later, O’Donnell struck again with deadly effect as he once again combined cleverly with McGettigan before blasting the ball to the top of the Tyrone net.
It moved Donegal into a 2-6 to 0-9 lead. They eased into a four points lead at 2-9 to 0-11 with six minutes to go.
But they also hit seven wides from good positions in the same period as Tyrone struck back with deadly effect.
Mattie McGleenan, (Jnr) pointed to leave the score at 2-9 to 0-12 just before Kerr hit the net three minutes from time to level matters at 2-9 to 1-12 before McNabb gave Tyrone the lead with a pointed free.
Dauntless Donegal attacked like the Waves of Tory, and even though they took some frustratingly poor choices, McLaughlin’s magical late winner will long be remembered when this group of players are old and grey.
A thoroughly deserved victory for Donegal, but it would have been entirely their own fault, had they lost.
Donegal: Gavin Mulreany; Seaghan Ferry, Aaron McCrea, Mark Curran; Odhran Shiels, J D Boyle, Aiden McLaughlin (1-0); Jason McGee (0-2), Ciaran Gallagher; Nathan Boyle, Odhran McFadden Ferry, Enda McCormick; Peadar Mogan (0-1), Niall O’Donnell (2-42f), Eoghan McGettigan (0-2)
Subs; Ciaran McGinley for Enda McCormick (52), Brian O’Donnell for Nathan Boyle (69)
Tyrone: Benny Gallen (0-1 45); Damian McGuigan, Brian McNulty, James McGurk; Tiarnan Carr, Conall Grimes, Peter Og McCartan (0-1); James Devlin, Cahair Goodwin (0-2); Barnnon Molloy, Thomas Carney (0-2), Paul Donaghy (0-1); Emmett McNabb (0-32f), M McGleenan (0-1), D Kerr (1-2)
Subs; Jude Campbell for Brannon Molloy (b card 20), O Donnelly for Brian McNulty (b card 50).
Referee: P Clarke (Cavan)