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In Focus: Paul Finlay – an Oriel career

Niall McCoy: How was it growing up in Ballybay, especially as the son of a Monaghan superstar in your father Kieran?

Paul Finlay: Ballybay was always a big football town and I grew up on nothing but Ballybay Pearse Brothers. My first memory of playing in a competitive nature was probably an u-10 community games match down in Gavan Duffy Park against Inniskeen. We played in that and won it. I don’t have a great recollection for times gone by, but that’s the one that sticks out in the memory. That was the start for me.

I was away then. Back then the start of the juvenile process proper was probably u-12s. From there you just continued through the grades trying to hone your skills. It was the game we played at school, it was the game we played in the back yard. There was a bit of soccer thrown in, especially at World Cup time, but it was a very sporting environment in our house anyway.

My Da had a great career and we were always encouraged to get out and play as much as possible. From the early years it was all football probably up to 14 or 15 and then we were introduced a bit to soccer with Monaghan United.

We played rugby at u-12, u-14 too. My claim to fame there is that I would have togged out alongside Tommy Bowe. Tommy would have been down in Monaghan Rugby Club and myself and a guy Conor Connolly would have went down and we were all the same age.

I enjoyed the rugby, it was great. Most of the training happened during the winter when the Gaelic would have been finished up.

The outstanding memory would have been the pace of Tommy, he was immensely fast and we all know where he went from there.

NMcC: Apart from the pace, was it obvious at that stage that this boy was operating on a different plane?

PF: Probably not at that age. He stood out at that age-group as one of the stronger players but at that age positions weren’t what they are as you go up through the grades. You always see Tommy Bowe with the ball making a beeline for the try-line and more often than not getting there, so you always wanted to be on his team more so than the stronger GAA guys. At that point you were looking at his pace, but it was still schoolboy stuff back then.

NMcC: Was there a point when the Ballybay coaches and yourself started to realise that you had inherited your Da’s football talent?

PF: There was definitely no clear point that I can recall when I thought that things were going to go the way they did for me. We were always well grounded in our house. You could be good one day but you mightn’t be the next and that’s the way I’ve always approached football matches. We’ve all had poor days on the pitch and they can be frustrating, but you just keep coming back and get better and better. I never had a conversation about planning to play for Monaghan, it was more when the time came you were asked to go.

NMcC: Even at that young age, were you doing extra work on your free-taking?

PF: No, definitely not. It was more about the general skills of the game and trying to be as good at those as possible. I possibly developed a good style of kicking through the juvenile career but it was probably 14 or 15 and you were seen as one of the stronger players and the task was just left with you. You had to try and kick some frees. In terms of more structured practice, that wouldn’t have materialised until the minor grade.

NMcC: You mention minor, and you played with some great Monaghan minor and u-21 teams and if it wasn’t for Tyrone you would have won a few titles too. The one thing that struck me was the volume of players for your team that actually went on to play senior intercounty football.

PF: That’s how you get a good team through. The more players you can pull from a minor team the better it will be for the seniors. You just had a talented group. We got to a minor final in 2001 and were beaten by Tyrone. We know Tyrone had around that time, they had Sean Cavanagh, Peter Donnelly, Martin Penrose and they were just that little bit better than us. We were competing well at that level and got within a whisker of an Ulster Championship but it just wasn’t to be. It’s always the case at minor though about how many you can pull through. Monaghan seemed to do a good job. Anyone around my age seemed to be dedicated, we loved playing, we loved football. As far as I was concerned it was never a question of whether you wanted to keep it going or not, it was just what we did. Thankfully in the years that followed we were able to garner more and more players to make a very solid team.

NMcC: 2002 was your first taste of the big time as Sligo IT won the Sigerson Cup, and I’m sure the fact that it was in Sligo made it all the better.

PF: I’d point out a big experience even before that when we won the Monaghan Vocational Schools title. We won the All-Ireland, beating Offaly, and that was a massive achievement. It’s one that I will always remember.

I went to Ballybay Community College and we had a big, big say in the overall team. We could have had double figures involved. That was a huge title for us to win. Paddy Kerr was the principal or the vice-principal of the school at the time and was a proud Ballybay man. He was a former county player that we always had huge respect for and he was over us. It was just a brilliant time. There were some brilliant matches, such as beating Kerry on the way to the final and then the Offaly game itself.

Then it was on to college and that Sigerson was a huge victory. You’d always hear stories of the Sigerson Cup, it was such a massive all-Ireland trophy. You knew it was played at such a high level by so many intercounty players.

To be involved in the first Sligo team to ever win the Sigerson, and for it to be held in Sligo, was very special. Martin McHugh, a Donegal legend, was over us. He would inspire anybody.

A couple of years passed and we went with a very strong team. The following year we hadn’t got over the line but then we came back the next year to win it in ’04 in Belfast against Queen’s.

NMcC: You’re talking Kevin Cassidy, the McGees, Austin O’Malley, it was a star-studded team. That probably brought a different sort of pressure to 2002?

PF: Yeah, we had an unbelievable team. Some of the players on the bench, it was remarkable. You said a few there yourself, then there was Christy Toye, Nickey Joyce, Pat Kelly who would have played in an All-Ireland final for Mayo. Aidan Higgins, another Mayo All-Ireland finalist.

Andy Moran didn’t start on the day, he was on the bench. We all know what he went on to do so it was a serious team.

It does bring an extra pressure to get over the line but thankfully we did and two out of three ain’t bad. They’re two medals that I will cherish.

NMcC: Growing up watching Sigerson football in Belfast, the teams would have taken out on the drink big time after it was over. I’m sure it was similar down in Sligo?

PF: Absolutely. Great memories were made celebrating not only winning, but also after Ryan Cup matches and things like that and heading over to the Brewery, a pub right across from the college. You’d go on from there up to the Leitrim Bar. We celebrated like every other team. I think we got a night or two around Belfast after ’04 in the Bot.

The Queen’s team that year we played was very good. Dick (Clerkin) was on it, Marty McGrath, Dan McCartan and a few lads like that, Billy Joe Padden. It was a tight game for the most part of it but we got through by a few points.

I was watching it there, watching games back is a bit of a nightmare, and I was very wasteful. If it was today’s game I’d be getting the curly finger after 20 minutes.

NMcC: You had a very famous championship debut as you starred against then All-Ireland champions Armagh in 2003, but your first start actually came in the McKenna Cup that January under Colm Coyle. How was that for you?

PF: It was a very proud day. It was always something you wanted to do and I will always remember Colm giving me that start.

Declan Brennan was part of Colm’s set-up and he really was ahead of his time in terms of the professionalism of GAA and he knew where it was going. We would have been one of the first teams to head to the Algarve for a training camp so that was a very exciting time for me. I was breaking into the senior squad and I was in that environment where the training was at such a high level. That trip in Portugal was very new at the time. Armagh had done it prior to their win in ’02 so it was just coming onto the scene.

As the year went on you were coming towards that championship debut against Armagh, the All-Ireland champions. We had prepared really, really well and nobody gave us a chance obviously. That meant that there was no pressure on us, there was no pressure on me. It was just go out and try and implement our plan, work our socks off and make it difficult for Armagh. I had one of those bizarre days where everything I kicked just seemed to sail over the bar.

NMcC: People talk about Armagh jerseys popping up in Dundalk and Castleblayney around that time. Vinny Corey told a story about Dermot Duffy seeing his neighbours in Clones in Armagh jerseys. I’m sure that sort of stuff must have been the perfect motivation for you. When did you sense that they were there for the taking?

PF: I maybe was too young to realise what was happening. You’re stuck in a big match and you’re oblivious to what might happen. That’s the beauty of youth, you don’t think about games the same way you do later in your career.

There is nothing that stands out as a period that we felt ‘Christ, we have a chance here.’ It was just about keeping the head down and going to the final whistle. We played well, frees were going over for myself and we were able to keep our noses in front. We frustrated Armagh and they weren’t able to get into any sort of flow.

All the time you were expecting them to come with something major and you could never relax. The final whistle went anyway and it was mayhem for those few minutes. You could see the Armagh players were very dejected and, also, you could see what it meant to the Monaghan players.

Unfortunately we didn’t carry that forward into the following game.

NMcC: Yeah, you lost to Down in Ulster, beat Westmeath in the Qualifiers, and then lost to Meath. That carried onto the next season too. The league campaign wasn’t great, you got sent off against Donegal, then there were championship losses to Armagh and Longford. So from that high of the Armagh win in 2003 you didn’t build on it and there was an inconsistency there.

PF: I think you hit it there, consistency was the problem. We got ourselves up for that huge game against Armagh but the next day against Down at Casement Park we played enough football to win but we couldn’t get the scores on the board. We continually made the wrong decisions.

We had made some strides in Colm’s time but not enough to sustain ourselves at the level we needed to be playing at to compete with the top teams. One-off days seemed to be our lot. It would take a few years more before we got where we needed to be.

NMcC: So Colm leaves and in comes Seamus McEnaney. What were your first impressions of ‘Banty’?

PF: I have been very lucky to have played under some incredible management teams during my career.

Declan Brennan brought us up a few rungs of the ladder in terms of preparation and then ‘Banty’ came in with a strong management team of ex Monaghan players from the ‘80s that we all would have recognised. Gerry McCarville, Gerard Hoey, Bernie Murray, I just remember hearing those names and being excited to be involved with them.

‘Banty’s’ strength, even now, has always been building a very good management team around him. He has never claimed to be the be all and end all when it comes to coaching and management. He is certainly always willing to look outside and see who is available to come in and bring something to it.

In ’05 we had some success in the league, that’s where we started to build.

NMcC: I was going to mention that Division Two final win against Meath and the late own goal that won it from your free-kick. Talk me through that moment from your angle.

PF: It was frantic. I do recall the referee saying that once the ball went dead the game was over. We were two points down so you know that something special has to happen. All you’re trying to do is get the ball in and around the square. I had planned on just kicking it into the danger zone and hoping that somebody would get their fist to it but when I kicked it, I felt that I had kicked it too hard and that it would drop over the bar and all would be lost.

A tuft of wind came up and stalled it like I don’t know what and I will always feel sorry for Mark Ward. The poor fella tried to flick it over the bar knowing that a point would be fine, but we know what happened next.

Someone posted the video on social media recently and to be watching the scenes after 16 years on is unbelievable. The hairs were standing on the back of your neck and it was so special for Monaghan. We had never lifted a cup at Croke Park and that was the driving force.

NMcC: The scenes after it were amazing with the fans coming onto the pitch before the Division One final between Armagh and Wexford. Have you ever seen that for the undercard of a double bill?

PF: Some would say it was embarrassing for us to be celebrating in such a way but it just gave us an indication of what it meant to Monaghan people. How starved we were of success of any nature. Some great teams and players had come through and for whatever reason weren’t able to win. Donegal came, Derry came in the early ‘90s and were winning All-Ireland titles. Very good Monaghan teams were coming up against them and just falling short.

That day was a huge, huge boost and from there on the level of interest in the Monaghan team rose and rose and rose. FKM was our main sponsor and the amount of jerseys that were going around after that league win was brilliant. From there on we kept making progress.

NMcC: It was six seasons of a roller-coaster ride under ‘Banty’. Old adversaries Tyrone and Kerry were the reasons why you didn’t manage even more, but it was quite a journey. There was a real passion there.

PF: That came from Seamus, he is a passionate Monaghan man first and foremost and that’s what he brings to the team. He is so, so passionate about Monaghan and wanting to do well. He really got the Monaghan supporters behind them.

I recall from ’05 on that at a training session or even the smallest of challenge matches, you felt that people were eager to come and see you. We had open evenings when hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, were turning up looking for autographs and signed jerseys.

I can only thank Seamus McEnaney for lifting the spirit of the county. In turn we were starting to see some progress on the field.

We had a solid team with some great players but for different reasons we fell short on the biggest day. Tyrone in Ulster finals and Kerry in Croke Park, there was that feeling of getting so close and maybe just falling short. Maybe not so much in the Tyrone games because they had a way of stifling our play. There was frustration that we didn’t get our best stuff out against them. I personally will always hold that disappointment that we didn’t bring our best stuff against Tyrone. I certainly didn’t bring my best stuff.

We did bring it to Kerry though. They were possibly off the boil, they maybe came in a bit cold. I’ve heard Paul Galvin and the Ó Sés talk about how they got a rude awakening from Monaghan. Ultimately we weren’t able to finish the job.

There were good memories of big games but there is still that disappointment too.

NMcC: It was during that time that you got your first of two Irish call-ups for the International Series. In 2008, Tommy Walsh pulled out and you were drafted in. I’m sure that was some honour and some trip to Australia.

PF: It was an amazing experience. There are other parts of my career that I can look back on with pride, winning medals and that, but the International Rules trip was just great fun.

I played really well in the preparation games and the trainings, but it looked like I was going to fall short. Due to injury or maybe club commitments, Tommy Walsh and Bernard Brogan pulled out and I got in.

I remember getting the call from Sean Boylan, I was up around his neck of the woods in Drumshauglin on that particular afternoon. I pulled the car in and I’ll never forget making the call to my father to let him know. It was a very special thing. I was emotional at the time. I was feeling that I had put a lot in trying to make the team so the prospect of wearing the jersey meant a lot.

You were treated like a professional basically for three weeks down in Australia. You were at the training pitch every day, sometimes maybe just knocking it around to loosen out before game.

You were playing with the top players from all over Ireland, forming relationships with them that you still have to this day. Getting a series win was massive too. Getting a game, getting a score was definitely a highlight of my career.

NMcC: Who did you room with?

PF: Myself and Marty McGrath roomed together. I remember myself, John Keane from Westmeath, Marty and Enda McGinley being fairly close. I don’t know what it was but we ended up palling about. The squad was close, Kieran Donaghy, Sean Cavanagh, Ciaran McKeever, Benny Coulter, Paddy Bradley, Michael Meehan from Galway, the two McMahons, Jesus there was some array of talent. Bomber Liston, Sean Boylan and Anthony Tohill, all legends of the game, were involved in the management. It was just a lot of fun and one of the best trips I’ve ever had.

I was involved in the Railway Cup for Ulster too and got a trip to London and a few other places, and they were really enjoyable too. I’ve been very lucky that way.

NMcC: It was also in 2008 when you had the run in with referee Derek Fahy when he accused you of verbal abuse. You went all the way to the DRA but the ban held. How do you look back on that incident now?

PF: It is definitely a regrettable incident. I got suspended and missed the game. Did the punishment fit the crime? I would have loved the referee to have understood the frustration of a player that can come out in a moment of time.

I do recall having a go at Derek Fahy over a decision, the game wasn’t going well for us. It was Fermanagh down in Enniskillen. We were hot favourites but we were being frustrated, Fermanagh were doing their job and getting the better us. Frustrations were at boiling point.

I said something to Derek and I would have liked him to have said ‘Paul, settle down’ but he saw it differently and then the punishment followed.

I get it now. As the years have passed I have mellowed when it has come to getting frustrated on the pitch. If I was to be honest, it was all on me. You have to be in control of your emotions. It doesn’t help your team or yourself when you get too hot with the referee or the opposition. A learning curve.

I missed the next match, Derry, but thankfully Monaghan won it. A frustrating thing, but one I had to learn from.

NMcC: After Seamus left, in came Eamon McEneaney. I spoke to Dick Clerkin earlier this year and he thinks people look back harshly on Eamon’s time in charge. What are your thoughts?

PF: I would have huge respect for Eamon McEneaney. I recall feeling for him for the way his term as Monaghan manager went.

The ‘Banty’ era was fanfare whereas this was a more diligent approach. For whatever reasons, injuries and stuff, things didn’t go exactly to plan. We started with him in Division One but ultimately ended in Division Three. It was a tough time for the team and Eamon in charge.

I recall matches going right down to the wire and coming out on the wrong side of them by a point. We played a massive game against Dublin at Clones and lost by a point, that’s what happens when things don’t go for you. We were on the wrong side of any luck. Eamon didn’t have that bit of luck and it petered out really.

One of the biggest disappointments for myself and Dick and everybody on that team was against Down in Armagh in the Ulster semi. We came flying out of the blocks and had a massive lead heading into half time only for Conor Laverty to get a penalty and bring it back a bit. We were still in a commanding position but we lost the game. That was the final nail in the coffin for that team under Eamon.

I think it was followed by a Qualifier defeat against Laois and I remember some supporters getting on Eamon’s back after that. He resigned after that I think.

That was a difficult time for Eamon. I was, and still am, good friends with Eamon, like he would have been with my Dad. He’ll regret that things didn’t go a bit better but that’s just the way things went.

NMcC: It looked almost like the end of the road for the team. The golden generation, to use a silly term, looked like it was under ‘Banty’s’ watch but then Malachy O’Rourke comes in and suddenly the rewards arrive. Can you give me what specifically that he brought that made the difference?

PF: It’s a good question and one I get asked often. I often refer to Malachy as one of, if not the, best manager I’ve ever played under. People then ask ‘well why?’ and all I can say was that he was meticulous in his nature. His planning, the people he brought in were brilliant. He had his number two in Leo McBride. Leo is a very, very good fella and great lad to have in. Ryan Porter was a huge part of the jigsaw under Malachy. I would never underestimate his input. There were other people involved, and it all worked well.

To bring it more to the game side of it, I definitely think he had us more structured in how we defended. It changed from how we would have played under Eamon and even under ‘Banty.’

We were coming into that Donegal time and what they were doing in 2012. Defensive, getting loads of bodies behind the ball. I think Malachy had us really well set up.

It was a huge change for me. One minute you’re this all-out forward who just wants the ball and to kick a few scores. You’re taking your man on and you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing when you don’t have the ball.

Under Malachy, when you lose possession, you have to think about what are you actually doing in a positional sense or a work-rate sense. You have to work your darndest to get that ball back no matter where it is on the pitch. That’s one of the big dramatic changes and it ultimately helped Monaghan become more competitive and become really, really consistent.

Players like Conor McManus, even though they were there under ‘Banty’ and Eamon, were really coming into their prime. A few were moving into their 30s but these lads were maturing and we all know what Conor and Darren (Hughes) and those boys ended up doing since. Those guys were giving us fresh impetus so you had that along with Malachy’s restructuring and some tactical moves – that was the big change.

NMcC: It’s probably lost a bit because Monaghan went on to do so well, but in 2013 you were huge underdogs ahead of the Ulster final against Donegal, we’re talking 71 shots. I’m sure that was the perfect motivation going into the game?

PF: There’s no doubt about it. Donegal were coming off an All-Ireland win and they looked like this unstoppable train. Nobody could get near them and Monaghan were seen as nothing different.

We played Antrim. I remember it being a scorcher of a day and that probably had a detrimental effect on how the game panned out. That win went without much notice, nobody was saying ‘watch out for Monaghan.’

We followed that up with a semi-final against Cavan and, again, it was another tight game. That’s the one where Rory (Beggan) decided to go walkabout. There were some big moments in that. Eoin Lennon, who was always a big leader for us, ran into Ronan Flanagan at one point and that really lifted us. We just got over the line in that one also and, again, we hadn’t shown anything to say that we could trouble Donegal. That was perfect.

It left us in a good place to prepare for one big tilt. We came up with a game-plan. Malachy had started to develop us, as I say, in a more defensive way because that’s how football was moving. If you wanted to be competitive you needed to switch and Malachy was shrewd enough.

We hit Donegal with huge intensity, huge work-rate. I didn’t get a score on the day myself but I also recall it being a day when I felt I played well. I had a good impact on the game but it was so different because you were a hell of a long way from the goals, much further than I would have usually have been. It was just one of those days when it was all hands on deck. If someone was to be hit, you hit him; if someone was to be tackled, you tackled him. You won possession and you moved forward at pace. Kieran Hughes had a massive game that day and Conor McManus did as well. There were points kicked that mightn’t have went over the bar today, it was one of those days when things went right.

There were good things happening all over the pitch. Defensively, Colin Walshe and Drew Wylie were all over Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty. They didn’t let them get a minute on the ball and that upset the way Donegal wanted to play. That was a huge day for Monaghan.

NMcC: I know the season ended sourly enough with the Sean Cavanagh and Conor McManus pull down incident in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but I’m sure those scenes after the full-time whistle in Ulster must still resonate with you and were maybe something you doubted you’d ever see.

PF: There’s no doubt about it. It’s still very fresh in the memory this far on. I was just grateful. I was in my 30s at that point, or on the cusp of it, and had played a long time without much success – certainly no Ulster Championship medal anyway. You were having those doubts, would we ever get the Anglo Celt Cup? It was just huge and I am forever grateful to have gotten over the line and to experience what it’s like to win an Ulster final with Monaghan.

To do it again a few years later, albeit not having as much involvement and not playing on final day, was very satisfying. There were similar celebrations and it was clear what it meant to the people of Monaghan. Not everyone who plays Gaelic football gets to experience days like those.

NMcC: You mention that second Ulster title. You were more an impact sub by that stage, but you had medals in the pocket. Did that make it an easier decision to retire in 2016?

PF: Without a doubt. I was 33 years of age and the way the game was going, and having played for the period I played, it left it an easy decision. I had limited game-time that season too so it did come to a natural end. There was no point trying to deny the obvious, that the pace wasn’t in the legs that Malachy needed.

There was never any ill-feeling. We may have had a difference of opinion in some matches of when I could be introduced towards the end of that the season, but that was as much as it was. It definitely was the right time and I was very much at ease with that decision. Not everyone gets to do it that way. Injuries ruin so many careers and I was lucky to be able to keep going as long as I did without suffering too much on the injury side.

NMcC: And I believe you’re still planning to play for Ballybay this season.

PF: Yeah, that’s the plan. I’m back in training for another season to try and knock on the door again. Hopefully it will open and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.

Thankfully on that side we got over the line in 2012 and that was a massive experience. Again, I’m grateful because not everyone gets to experience that with their club. I’m lucky enough to be able to still give it a go. We have a great young squad with a great attitude and it’s pretty easy to me to say ‘let’s go ahead.’

NMcC: Winning in 2012 must have been amazing, but it was obviously a difficult year for you too with your Dad passing away. It must have been a time of real mixed emotions?

PF: It’ll probably go down as the year when things just happened. My Dad passed away in February 2012 and life is grim. You’re grieving and you can’t see much around. Months later we win our first Senior Championship with the club, Ballybay’s first in 25 years. We probably came in under the radar that year. The drive and desire of that team was amazing. I got married that October too, a few weeks after winning the championship. I missed the Ulster Club because of the honeymoon but that’s another story.

In 2013 we had that success with Monaghan after my Dad passes away. I’m sitting wondering what the hell is going on. It’s gets you thinking in a different way, put it like that. They were special times, they were sad times – and it’s all part of life.

NMcC: In recent times you have done some media work, BBC radio and the like, but is coaching on the radar?

PF: Yeah, hopefully I’ll be involved in some capacity. I have two young boys, four and seven, and another on the way please God in the next few weeks. U-7s is where it’s at the moment.

I am heavily involved with the underage set-up in the club here and I’m really trying to put as much time as I can into that.

We’re trying to get the structures in place and built up for the next generation. I have no burning desire to manager Ballybay or Monaghan or anything like that at the minute. I just want to keep tipping away at the playing and enjoy the underage set-up. I have nothing definitive in my mind regarding the future.

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21 July 2013; Paul Finlay, Monaghan, celebrates at the final whistle. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan, St Tiernach’s Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit: Daire Brennan SPORTSFILE

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31 October 2008; Ireland players Marty McGrath, Fermanagh, Paul Finlay, Monaghan, and John Keane, Westmeath, celebrate with the Cormac McAnallen Cup in the dressing room area after the game. Toyota International Rules Series, Australia v Ireland, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne, Australia. Picture credit: Ray McManus SPORTSFILE

Paul Finlay Sigerson

28 February 2004; The Sligo IT team celebrates with cup after the Datapac Sigerson Cup Final match between Queens University Belfast and Sligo IT at Corrigan Park in Belfast, Antrim. Photo by Sportsfile

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11 May 2003; Paul McCormack, Armagh, in action against Monaghan’s Paul Finlay, left, and Vincent Corey. Bank of Ireland Ulster Senior Football Championship, Armagh v Monaghan, St. Tighearnach’s Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit; David Maher SPORTSFILE *EDI*

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7 October 2018; Referee Anthony Marron with Ballybay and Scotstown captains Paul Finlay and Darren Hughes prior to the Monaghan County Senior Club Football Championship Final match between Scotstown and Ballybay Pearse Brothers at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones, Co Monaghan. Photo by Philip FitzpatrickSportsfile

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