Let the battle begin…

Ulster SFC final
Donegal v Armagh
Sunday, Clones, 4pm

By Michael McMullan

DERRY’S ability to go the extra mile over the last two mammoth finals left Armagh and Donegal empty handed.

Trudging down the narrow tunnel to the losers’ dressing room is a lonely collection of steps into the quietness of defeat.

Sunday will paint a different picture for one of the teams, the sheer joy of climbing the mountain.

There will be an All-Ireland series in the distance, but, for the winners, Sunday will be the top of their world.

This is box office. Any chatter of the provincials not meaning anything will vanish like snow off a ditch this evening. Just like Sunday in Salthill.

Armagh are craving silverware and a first Ulster title since their replay win over Fermanagh in 2008. They had one hand on the Anglo Celt Cup last year but Rory Grugan’s late chance didn’t finish Derry.

Kieran McGeeney’s charges were not able to outwrestle Shane McGuigan in extra-time before coming up against Odhrán Lynch’s diving frame in the penalty shoot-out drama.

For Donegal, it will be their 11th Ulster final in the 14 years since Jim McGuinness brought nourishment to end their famine.

It’s a first without Michael Murphy. Derry outran them two years ago but Jim’s secret sauce, fuelled by chinning an upgraded Derry, has them believing again. Really believing.

Of the 16 times McGuinness has led Donegal over the whitewash in the Ulster Championship, their 2013 final defeat to Monaghan is the only blemish.

Armagh were able to create overlaps for goals against Fermanagh that Down closed down in the semi-final. It backed Geezer’s men into another tight corner.

The sniff off an upset would have been oh so pungent in the Orchard nostrils but their game management was on the money. And it was their bench that won it.

Oisin O’Neill plucked a ball to score. Then it was time for the Cullyhanna duo. Jason Duffy and Aidan Nugent were down the stretch with Ballyhaise on the same Clones sod. And they answered again with the points that booked the Orchard County’s ticket to Ulster’s biggest show.

The last time the sides met in a final, it was Paul McGrane’s goal that separated the sides in the 2006 final, 1-9 to 0-9.

Now, his nephew Peter McGrane, their find of the season, is eyeing a fourth goal in all competitions.

With Aaron McKay and Paddy Burns the likely chaperones for Oisín Gallen and Niall O’Donnell, does it prompt Jim McGuinness to leave Patrick McBrearty on the bench? Chasing McGrane won’t help Donegal finish off Armagh the way the skipper came on to hammer the final nail into Tyrone.

Armagh will also have eyes on Shaun Patton during the warm-up following the knee injury sustained against Derry.

Gavin Mulreaney, a minor winner eight years ago in Clones, can kick it as long but Patton’s are quicker and pen defences back.

Donegal’s camp will ponder the Armagh scenario over Stefan Campbell.

‘Soupy’ was the man who packed the only significant punch they had in the league final.

Is that where Jim keeps clubmate Jeaic Mac Ceallabhuí in reserve, to throw on and track Campbell?

Armagh are going to find themselves against Donegal’s narrow defensive setup.

It allowed Derry the ball outside the danger area. The message seems to be along the lines of, have the ball if you want but we’re closing the back door cut and making you kick low percentage shots.

Having Rian O’Neill outside that zone will give Armagh something that could draw them out. Perhaps they can take a leaf out of Glen’s book and their wide attacking marks against Naomh Conaill.

Against Derry, Donegal were happy enough to let Ethan Doherty play around the edges. Without a path to the inside line, he wasn’t going to win the game by himself.

It’s the same door Donegal will close on whatever combination of Conor Turbitt, Andrew Murnin, Oisin Conaty and Oisin O’Neill Armagh play inside.

Donegal will offer more going the other way than Down had. In some ways, Conor Laverty and co. laid out the blueprint to take Armagh into the same suffocating wrestle others can follow.

Aside from Conor O’Neill, who is back in training, Armagh will be picking from a full deck. It’s the time of the year for it.

It would be a massive call, but is there an avenue for an Ethan Rafferty return between the posts? Does Donegal’s system need an extra kick-passer to make St Tiernach’s Park as big as possible?

It would be an awful kick in the teeth for Blaine Hughes who has been excellent but a curve ball to unsettle Donegal’s plans. That said, it’s hard to imagine McGuinness not having a subsequent plan B in the locker.

This one is going down the stretch. Armagh need not blink. Donegal won’t. Extra time? Don’t rule it out. Penalties? Maybe. We’ll see.


2024 – Donegal 0-15 Armagh 0-14 NFL Division Two final
A DONEGAL side without several key players edged out Armagh to seal promotion as champions.

From the off, Donegal were the better team with a host of players tasting Croke Park for the first time.

Stefan Campbell added some Armagh spark but it was Donegal who took the title with a late Aaron Doherty point.

Donegal: S Patton; M Curran, C McColgan, C Moore; O’Donnell (0-1), K McGettigan, C McGonagle (0-1); J McGee, M Langan; P Mogan (0-1), C Thompson (0-4, 1f), Luke McGlynn; A Doherty (0-1), O Gallen (0-4, 1f, 1m), N O’Donnell (0-3)
Subs: J Brennan for McGettigan, O Doherty for McGlynn, H McFadden for McGee, J Mac Ceallabhuí for McColgan, C McGuinness for N O’Donnell

Armagh: B Hughes; P McGrane, P Burns, A McKay; J Óg Burns (0-2), A Forker, D McMullen; Ciaran Mackin, B Crealey; G McCabe, R Grugan (0-4, 2f), J McElroy; A Murnin, C Turbitt (0-4, 2f), O Conaty (0-2)
Subs: S Campbell (0-1) for Forker, R O’Neill for McElroy, O O’Neill (0-1) for McMullen, J Duffy for Mackin

2024 Donegal 0-15 Armagh 0-14– NFL Div 2 final
2024 Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12 – NFL Div 2
2024 Donegal 3-16 Armagh 1-6– McKenna Cup
2023 Armagh 0-13 Donegal 0-10 – NFL Div 1
2022 Armagh 3-17 Donegal 0-16 – All-Ireland SFC R2



Donegal 3-16 Armagh 1-6
Armagh 1-14 Tyrone 2-10
Armagh 2-7 Derry 0-17

Armagh 0-12 Louth 0-11
Armagh 2-16 Meath 0-10
Kildare 0-8 Armagh 2-16
Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12
Fermanagh 0-11 Armagh 0-15
Armagh 2-21 Cavan 0-12
Cork 2-16 Armagh 2-16
Armagh 0-15 Donegal 0-16

Fermanagh 0-11 Armagh 3-9
Armagh 0-13 Down 2-6


Donegal 3-16 Armagh 1-6
Tyrone 1-10 Donegal 0-15
Monaghan 0-11 Donegal 4-14
Derry 0-12 Donegal 0-6

Donegal 1-20 Cork 2-6
Cavan 0-12 Donegal 0-13
Donegal 2-16 Fermanagh 0-8
Armagh 1-9 Donegal 0-12
Donegal 1-17 Louth 0-15
Kildare 1-8 Donegal 0-17
Donegal 1-18 Meath 1-10
Donegal 0-15 Armagh 0-14

Donegal 4-11 Derry 0-16
Donegal 0-18 Tyrone 0-16 AET


Conor Turbitt 3-33 (21f, 1-0pen, 1m)
Rory Grugan 2-26 (15f)
Oisin Conaty 0-19

Oisín Gallen 4-44 (16f, 2-0 pens, 5m, 1 45)
Patrick McBrearty 1-36 (27f)
Dáire Ó Baoill 4-11

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere

No tags for this post.

Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW