For 90 minutes this Ulster final fizzled with a bright mess of colour and periodic quality and above all else, edge-of-seat-anticipation. An exhausting afternoon ultimately ended with a penalty shoot-out, a Derry victory and an engulfing red sea.
Sunday revealed a fact about Clones that critics of the venue fail to account for.
The Ulster final is not purely about function. It is also theatre. That needs character and it was repeatedly revealed when both sides needed it the most.
From sunrise to sunset the town heaved and the dial turned. It was all headed towards a heart-in-mouth crescendo in front of the eastern end. Odhran Lynch saved three penalties to seize the Anglo-Celt Cup and finish the evening paraded shoulder high.
At 4pm, St Tiarnach’s Park was tight as a drum with no space to even turn a sweet in your mouth.
Derry strived to stretch it even further as they started with a three-minute attack, flirting with turnovers near the sideline and again when a Lynch pickup was adjudged to be just above the turf. Eventually Shane McGuigan curled over his first of the afternoon.
He would finish with seven points in a magnificent performance.
Armagh had multiple opportunities to reply, Conor Turbitt missed a free and Ciaran Mackin was blocked down after a high press paid off. Rian O’Neill put an end to the wastefulness and struck a monster free to level it up.
At times it was confounding and confusing and a bit of a circus. That’s before we even get to the jersey clash.
It was the sort of contest that had you second-guessing who was playing where or even playing well.
Kieran McGeeney made a late change before throw-in, starting defenders James Morgan and Barry McCambridge in place of midfielder Ben Crealey and forward Stefan Campbell. McCambridge made for McGuigan, Morgan operated as an extra defender while Ciaran Mackin moved into the centre.
Meanwhile, a man assured of his spot suddenly looked totally at sea. Ethan Rafferty was caught badly by a Paul Cassidy dropped shot and Brendan Rogers rose highest to punch in a goal. He failed to deal with another floated and kicked a wide in either half before slotting two beauties with the outside of his left in the late exchanges.
Jarly Óg Burns notched an early mark and Greg McCabe snagged another to keep them in touch. Soon it was the opposite number one and Lynch’s turn to find himself under an uncomfortable spotlight.
He took his time when faced with a lengthy press and finally sent a kickout long on top of Andrew Murnin. Nuts to a monkey. O’Neill came thundering off his shoulder and the ball came thundering back.
Next Lynch took too long and David Gough sounded his whistle. O’Neill won the throw-up and was fouled, with Grugan converting the free.
At the turnaround Derry led 1-5 to 0-7. They were two up with two minutes left only to let the tie slip from their grasp.
Ethan Doherty kept them rolling to start the second half. He was fouled twice with rampages down the right and assisted McGuigan for a score from the left. O’Neill and substitute Stefan Campbell replied in turn. There were flashpoints all over the field with yellow cards for Aaron McKay and O’Neill.
In the final minutes, Jason Duffy called for a gel having collapsed with cramp. Grugan came back on and dropped a shot short, but Derry’s clearance was dismal.
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Lynch fed Padraig Cassidy who handpassed directly to Jarly Og Burns. Brendan Rogers took a necessary black card. By the time Grugan missed with a late opportunity to win it with a mark, Derry were grateful to still be in with a chance.
Ross McQuillan and McGugan traded points until Óg Burns made it advantage Armagh. Campbell doubled down, forcing Derry to go full bore and pressed the kickout hard. A sensational long-range free from McGuigan as well as scores from Toner and Murray saw Derry go from two down to one up.
O’Neill summoned another crucial free to force penalties. It was magnificent drama. There was more to come. Sadly, the Armagh vice-captain collapsed inconsolable minutes later as the Red Hand faithful invaded the field. The game gives and takes in equal measure.
O’Neill, Aidan Nugent and Rafferty all missed spot-kicks. It fell to Ciaran McFaul to convert the winner and produce a deafening roar. Derry are kings of Ulster again.