BY ALAN RODGERS
TWO teams who dominated the Ulster title-race throughout the last decade may find it hard to think back to a time when their fortunes on the provincial or All-Ireland stage were a lot less impressive.
From 2010 until 2019, both Donegal and Monaghan have, alongside Tyrone, been the only winners of the Anglo Celt Cup.
But a scenario such as that would have been difficult to envisage 13 years ago when their respective journeys towards the pinnacle of big days at Clones and Croke Park were only just beginning.
People may talk about the rivalry between Tyrone and Donegal, but the one between Donegal and Monaghan has been even more intriguing in Ulster football for the past decade. Their rivalry since then has been most impressive and this match in 2007 provided the launching pad for many subsequent high profile encounters. Most notable, of course, among them were the Ulster Finals of 2013, 2014 and 2015.
While Donegal have enjoyed the greater level of progress on the All-Ireland front, it is Monaghan who started the ball rolling and it is Monaghan who have perhaps experienced the upper hand in the provincial stage, winning two of those three finals.
But back to 2007 and a different time on the GAA front. That year saw Monaghan, then as now under the management of Seamus McEneaney, make the breakthrough by reaching their first Ulster final in 19 years, Donegal, meanwhile, had just won the National League and were hoping, under the management of Brian McIver, to maintain their momentum where it mattered most in the championship.
But things didn’t entirely go to plan for them initially. Defeat by Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final led to Donegal’s provincial demise, while Monaghan also fell victim to the Red Hands in the Ulster showpiece.
However, there was fresh hope for them in the All-Ireland Qualifiers, especially Monaghan whose performance in the Ulster Final gave them hope of taking a step towards a rare Croke Park championship appearance.
The draw pitted them together, with the result that a sunny evening at Healy Park in Omagh on July 2007 would decide their respective championship fates for that particular season.
Both entered the tie, of course, with high hopes of progressing and perhaps even enjoying the thrill of knock-out football in August and September. Nevertheless, this was to be an occasion when the comprehensive victory for the winners left little doubts about their supremacy.
Put simply, it was an evening when Donegal’s slightly more seasoned campaigners were led a merry dance by the new, passionate and capable underdogs from Monaghan.
The final scoreline, which saw Monaghan win by eight points probably says it all, with warning signals flashing all over for Brian McIver and his players.
Early scores can make a huge difference in games such as this. So it was for Monaghan when Vinny Corey, who announced his retirement just last year, pounced in the opening stages to beat Paul Durcan and flick the ball to the net. It was a score which set the tempo for the tie overall.
That goal gave Monaghan a timely boost, but they had to endure some anxious moments before their control was confirmed in the closing stages.
Points from Rory Kavanagh and Brendan Devenney settled the Donegal nerves and that first half witnessed a procession of strong performances from players who would become household names. Tommy Freeman, Paul Finlay and, of course, Vinny Corey, were to the fore for Monaghan, while Donegal’s charge was led by Rory Kavanagh, Christy Toye and Kevin Cassidy.
As that opening period progressed, though, Monaghan grabbed the initiative. Tommy Freeman and Paul Finlay both pointed to ensure that they were five ahead by the 22nd minute and looking stronger and stronger.
Ultimately, however, that first half developed into a shoot-out which saw both teams taking a few positives into the interval. While Monaghan were well pleased with a 1-5 to 0-5 lead, Donegal’s relief at a deficit of just three points was clear as they retreated ready to regroup on the resumption.
That sense of optimism was entirely justified by what happened early in the second half. Rory Kavanagh latched onto Christy Toye’s pass and fired past Shane Duffy in the Monaghan goal. It was a characteristic score from the midfielder, and one which he would repeat on numerous occasions during better days in the years ahead.
That could and perhaps should have provided Donegal with the impetus to press ahead. It was instead a false dawn and merely the prelude to a lengthy period of Monaghan dominance and an almost complete collapse by the Tir Connaill side.
The Farney county wasted no time in getting back on track, and their determination at this stage proved to be matchwinning. Paul Finlay edged them ahead quickly, before their second goal really set them on the road to the win.
It came when the bustling Rory Woods combined with Vinny Corey to set up Tommy Freeman and he made no mistake in slotting the ball to the net.
In the subsequent minutes, Ciaran Hanratty, Vinny Corey, Tommy Freeman again and Paul Finlay all registered points. The result was that a draw-game was totally transformed to the point where Monaghan led by double-scores, 2-10 to 1-5 and were on the high road to victory.
As the Donegal fans made an early exit, points from Eamon McGee and Kevin McMenamin boosted their total. However, it was far too little too late as that collapse for most of that second half proved decisive.
Tommy Freeman finished with the impressive tally of 1-5 as Monaghan’s momentum in a memorable season saw them safely through.
That 2007 campaign provided the perfect platform for them to press ahead. From being in the doldrums on the inter-county front for so long, this game kick-started their footballing revival and they haven’t looked back during the intervening 13 years.
Their season ended in devastating circumstances at Croke Park a few weeks later when they came agonisingly close to defeating Kerry. Nevertheless, they worked hard, reached the Ulster Final again in 2010 and made the Anglo Celt breakthrough in 2013.
For Donegal, defeat here was to be another bitter disappointment. It marked the end of Brian McIver’s reign as manager and worse days were to follow during the next three years.
Of course, all that was to be forgotten subsequently when the Jim McGuinness era at U-21 was translated onto the senior front in magnificent fashion.
An All-Ireland title in 2012, an unsuccessful All-Ireland final appearance in 2014 and Ulster titles in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019 have highlighted their enduring quality on the provincial and national scenes.