By Michael McMullan
DERRY minor captain Fionn McEldowney said Sunday was the most dramatic game he was involved in after coming through to win the county’s 16th Ulster title in dramatic circumstances.
It took two penalty saves from Jack McCloy before Conall Higgins nailed Derry’s winning kick in the shoot-out at the end of the pulsating end.
McEldowney, one of five survivors from last year’s team and a recent dual Ulster Schools All-Star, was tasked with keeping an eye on Matthew Finn.
He could do very little about McCloy’s late kick-out gift-wrapping an equaliser for Finn to kick the game to extra time.
Other than that, McEldowney was on top of his game and a vital interception on Finn was another key one-percenter in a game that had a bit of everything,
“It was an unreal game from start to finish.” McEldowney summed up of a game that began with Tommy Mallen’s goal for Monaghan after 90 seconds.
“When they got the early goal, some people might’ve thought Monaghan could do it, but we pulled it back. Then, to be fair to them, they pulled it back too in normal time.”
Derry had a numerical disadvantage ahead of extra-time after Johnny McGuckian was shown a black card, but there was a focus in the dressing room before hitting the grass.
“It was frantic,” McEldowney said, “but we were told in the changing room about composure and to keep calm.
“You could see what we did with the man less…we did what the seniors did. We kept the ball, kept it moving, kept it out (of contact) until Johnny came back on.”
Conall Higgins opened the extra-time scoring, but it was Monaghan who threatened with three decent chances even before goalkeeper Jamie Mooney’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time.
Derry huffed and puffed without being able to get their noses back in front before a Tommy Mallen free looked to have won the title for Monaghan. Derry kept plugging away before winning a free. It was the last chance saloon and Higgins held his nerve to land the score and the destination of the Murray Cup would be decided by penalties.
“The whole thing was pressure, from start to finish…there was always pressure,” McEldowney said of game.
“In penalties, he (Higgins) won it for us…and Jack, what a save and what a ‘keeper.
“To be fair to Monaghan, there should be no loser today. Penalties is a bad way to go. You saw it in the seniors, no one likes to lose after penalties.
“To be fair to Monaghan, they stuck in and did what they did and got it to extra time. It’s a credit to them, they are a very good team.”
The final came a week after Monaghan saw off champions Tyrone in a penalty shoot-out that went all the way to sudden death with goalkeeper Jamie Mooney the hero.
“You have to be prepared for penalties,” McEldowney said of Derry’s preparations, hinting that goalkeeper Johnny Kelly may have been briefing McCloy and sub ‘keeper Karl Campbell on the Monaghan kickers.
“You can see it with the seniors…we were practising penalties at the end of our trainings too.”