Tyrone break Donegal hearts in frantic finish
Tyrone 0-13 Donegal 0-11
Mickey Harte described it as the best Ulster title Tyrone had won in his time as manager, and judging by the reaction of the supporters, his assessment was spot on.
They poured onto St Tiernach's Park in their thousands savouring a great occasion in the sizzling summer sun as captain Sean Cavanagh waved the Anglo-Celt Cup, which had proved frustratingly elusive for so long.
It was Tyrone's first Ulster final success in six years, a triumph made all the more special by the manner they achieved it.
Tyrone started as favourites but, for long periods, they were second to a Donegal team that used its vast experience to good effect.
When Paddy McBrearty extended Donegal's 0-7 to 0-4 interval lead with a point 20 seconds after the re-start, it really did look as if Donegal were on their way to winning a fourth Ulster title in six seasons.
They had recovered from a slow start, which left them trailing by 0-2 to 0-0 after 10 minutes, to impose their authority on the game in a manner reminiscent of some of their best performances since launching a new era for the county in 2011.
Ryan McHugh kicked three long-range points, while Odhran MacNiallais boomed over a wonderful effort too in what was the perfect antidote to Tyrone's packed defensive half.
It was always going to be difficult to unpick those locks but McHugh and MacNiallais improvised superbly with accurate long-distance kicks.
Tyrone ran into other problems too in the first half, picking up two black cards late on, with Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane ejected from the action by referee David Coldrick.
Given his status as one of Tyrone's anchormen, Donnelly's loss looked as if it might prove especially significant in what was always likely to be a very tight finish.
Facing a four-point deficit early in the second half, Tyrone were presented with a real test, not just of their character but also of their technical capacity to figure out the puzzle Donegal had set them.
Their response was very impressive. They kicked four unanswered points in the third quarter to draw level, and now it was Donegal's turn to feel the pressure.
Their response was equally courageous and they led three times later on, only to be hauled back each time.
The point which brought Tyrone level early in six minutes of stoppage-time aptly summed up the attitude of a squad that was very well served by some of those who came off the bench.
However, it was Cavanagh, their man of all seasons, who made the telling strike from out on the right wing. With three Donegal defenders bearing down on him, he got his kick away and watched in delight as it sailed over the bar.
"I didn't hit it as sweetly as I would have liked but whoever was blowing it, I have to thank them," he said.
Michael Murphy had a chance to restore Donegal's lead but his 50-metre free drifted wide.
It was as if that let-off left Tyrone sensing the gods were on their side and when they moved forward with their next attack, Peter Harte arrowed over the lead point.
There was more to come and sub Kieran McGeary kicked Tyrone's 13th point, leaving Donegal needing a goal to win.
Since goals are very rare in contests between these two intense rivals, it was highly unlikely that Tyrone would crack in the closing seconds of a game that highlighted the best and the worst of Gaelic football in its present form.
The incessant hand-passing by both teams as they tried to find a way through massed defences wasn't pretty but there was much to admire once pace was injected into the movements.
Still, it remained very difficult for either side to break through the massed defensive banks which both sides established around their 45-metre lines.
Eleven points were enough for Monaghan to beat Donegal in last year's Ulster final, which makes it all the more disappointing for Rory Gallagher men this time, having come up short on 0-11.
"You have to put distance between yourself and the top teams when you get the chance. We just weren't able to do that today. We have battled hard throughout a very tough, bruising championship campaign and we played really well through periods of it but ultimately we came up short - it's as simple as that," said Gallagher.
Donegal will be back in action in the qualifiers on the weekend after next, which will be difficult after losing in such heart-breaking fashion yesterday.
"You have to suck it up and get on. It will be a tough day or two but our boys will suck it up and they will be back. They have to be," said Gallagher.
Meanwhile, Tyrone are heading for the All-Ireland quarter-final through the front door for the first time in six years in a very upbeat mood.
Harte was thrilled with the spirit displayed by his team in demanding circumstances in the second half.
This was the fifth time that he had presided over an Ulster title success and has no doubt about its place on the pecking order.
"Absolutely the best. This is the best of all of them because of the famine that was there for six years and because of what had gone before when maybe Ulster titles were taken for granted . This is different, the county was waiting on this," said Harte.
"We got back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 and nobody cared a jot. Now, you see what it means to them to win today.
"This is a real reality check for people. These Ulster titles are important and they don't come around easy".
And what of Cavanagh, his trusted captain, who once again made such an impact?
"That's why he is the player he is. That's why he is recognised as such a great player around the country, the man he is," said Harte.
"He is a leader. He has been there and done it since he was 19 years of age and I am just so delighted that he is lifting this Anglo-Celt Cup, because nobody deserves it more."
Cavanagh saw it as the day when the squad matured together and delivered at a level which has raised all sorts of interesting possibilities not just for this season but beyond.
"It has been tough watching Donegal and Monaghan win the titles for a good few years now. We felt there was one in us and this was the day to deliver it," he said.
"There's a new team coming in Tyrone and it culminated here to some degree today. The lads who came off the bench made a huge impact in the second half.
"We kept at it and got our rewards. We were playing well enough in the first half but we just weren't getting the breaks.
"When things didn't go for us in Ballybofey in the last few games against Donegal, the heads dropped a bit but not today."
Scorers - Tyrone: S Cavanagh 0-3, N Morgan (2fs), P Harte 0-2 each, C McShane, C McCarron, N Sludden, R Brennan, K McGeary, D McCurry 0-1 each. Donegal: P McBrearty (2fs), R McHugh 0-3 each, O MacNiallais, M Murphy (1f, 1'45) 0-2 each, C Toye 0-1.
Tyrone - N Morgan; A McCrory, R McNamee, C McCarron; T McCann, J McMahon,R McNabb; C Cavanagh, M Donnelly; C McShane, N Sludden, P Harte; C McAliskey, S Cavanagh, R O'Neill. Subs: R Brennan for Donnell( b/c 33), M Bradley for McShane (b/c 35+2), J Monroe for O'Neill (54), D McCurry for McAliskey (63), K McGeary for McMahon (69)
Donegal - MA McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee, C Gillespie, K Lacey, F McGlynn; R Kavanagh, O MacNiallais; A Thompson, R McHugh, E McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, M O'Reilly. Subs: M McElhinney for Kavanagh (45), M McHugh for Thompson (53), C Toye for McGlynn (63), E Ban Gallagher for Gillespie (66), A Thompson for E McHugh (66), C McFadden for McBrearty (75).
Ref - D Coldrick (Meath)