Monaghan burst McGuinness bubble
Farney men expose chinks in Donegal's armour to lift Ulster title Monaghan 0-13 Donegal 0-7
With just over a minute remaining Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher made their way down the sideline, past the crush barriers that had just been erected by the stewards and offered their congratulations to their counterpart Malachy O'Rourke and his team.
Ulster SFC final
Monaghan 0-13 Donegal 0-7
On the field the champions battled on, but for McGuinness and Gallagher the day and the game was gone and it was best to get the formalities out of the way before the onset of the crowd bursting at the seams around St Tiernach's Park.
At any stage in the second half, they could have made the same walk and the same act of concession. A third successive Ulster title got away early and just never looked like coming back to them.
It was the perfect execution of the perfect plan by a Monaghan team, many of whom looked like they had left their best chance of an Ulster title behind them in two previous final appearances.
On a glorious day for the county – they won their first minor title since 1945, while the last team to win an Ulster title in 1988 were feted at half-time – Monaghan 'out-Donegaled' Donegal with spectacular effect, invariably dropping every team member behind their 45-metre line to defend and striking impressively on the break.
McGuinness has been rightly credited for devising a plan that suited his players for winning the previous two Ulster titles, but this, too, has been a most impressive coaching performance by Malachy O'Rourke in his first year.
Word had been emanating about how Monaghan might set up against the champions since a covert challenge match against Mayo last week and the veteran midfielder Dick Clerkin shone a light on that afterwards, revealing the instinct that told them beforehand that Donegal didn't like playing against a mirror image of themselves.
Ultimately, seeing a reflection of themselves was their kryptonite.
Once Monaghan got a four-point lead inside the first nine minutes this became a much different game played on much different terms than anyone expected.
There were signs everywhere that the control that Donegal had exerted in so many of their previous 10 Ulster championship games under McGuinness' command would not be repeated.
The outstanding Colin Walshe nicked a ball from Paddy McBrearty that led to the third point from a Conor McManus free, Owen Lennon caught two Paul Durcan kick-outs virtually unchallenged during that early surge, Mark McHugh went off injured, Colm McFadden kicked his first wide of this championship from a 16th-minute free and a Rory Kavanagh 'point' was re-declared a wide.
Amazingly it wasn't until the 31st minute that Donegal landed their first point, courtesy of a McFadden free that had been moved close to the goals by referee David Coldrick for apparent dissent. Who could ever have predicted such a shut-out?
Every battle just seemed to go Monaghan's way. Kieran Hughes gave Eamonn McGee many testing moments early on and Karl Lacey struggled at all times to get to the pitch of the game and McFadden and Murphy could find no room as Monaghan deployed Dermot Malone as a permanent sweeper and crowded the area behind their own 45-metre line with every available body.
For Monaghan it was a glorious day of redemption for so many of their battled-hardened veterans.
Men like Dessie Mone, captain Owen Lennon, Vinny Corey, Paul Finlay, Tommy Freeman and Clerkin have poured their lives into Monaghan football over the last decade. For six years under Seamus McEnaney they became a highly competitive force, dragging themselves up to Division 1 and scaring the lives out of Kerry in successive championships in 2007 and 2008.
In truth when they failed to perform in the 2010 final against Tyrone and then blew a glorious opportunity against Down in last year's semi-final, you sensed that the ship had sailed on them as regards an Ulster medal.
But they have been resilient and persistent and stubborn enough not to allow the light to go out their pursuit of an evasive Ulster medal and thus it was a fitting reward.
News that their minor team had come back from the next parish to win a first Ulster minor title since 1945 filtered into their dressing-room beforehand – a timely shot in the arm that laid the foundations for a most memorable day and a first-ever minor/senior double.
The spring in their step was reflected in the surging runs of Darren Hughes, who complemented Lennon's fielding with some powerful runs.
Every defensive match-up for them worked too, Drew Wylie on McFadden and Walshe on McBrearty being particularly successful.
McHugh's loss after a collision with Stephen Gollogly (who also left the field as a blood replacement and didn't come back for nine minutes) was significant, underlining why he is arguably the most important cog in the system over the last two and a half years. Playing a sweeper is not just a matter of planting a player in front of your full-back line. It demands intelligence as a footballer and that's why McHugh does the job so well.
The McGees had been uneasy even when McHugh was sitting in front of them, but, as the game wore on, they became more and more vulnerable.
If it wasn't for the intervention of Neil Gallagher at midfield, Donegal could have been swept further downstream. They looked heavy-legged and completely out of sorts in their movement, lacking that zip that has been their trademark for two summers.
The little seeds of doubt that Down sowed four weeks earlier in Kingspan Breffni Park germinated quickly here as odds of 6/1 and a six-point handicap looked so misguided. By the break Monaghan didn't seem to have done justice to their dominance on the scoreboard, carrying in a 0-5 to 0-2 lead.
Kieran Hughes picked off the first of his three points on the restart, a sequence broken only by a fine Ryan McHugh effort on 43 minutes after being introduced at the break.
When Mone cantered up field and slotted a ninth Monaghan point on 51 minutes for a 0-9 to 0-4 lead, it was the perfect response to an earlier McFadden free and reassurance that no matter what Donegal would throw at them they were always capable of a riposte.
Frank McGlynn and Murphy were wide with half-chances for goals as Donegal mounted pressure, but Monaghan's control was excellent through the hands of Mone, Darren Hughes and Finlay, the consummate ball-player.
Donegal never got closer than four points in the final quarter and when Christopher McGuinness came on and picked further holes with ease in what is, by reputation, the most secure defence in the game, the celebrations could begin. McGuinness also drew a great save from Durcan who parried for a '45' that Rory Beggan, Durcan's opposite number, coolly slotted over the bar.
McGuinness finds himself in new territory now, having to prepare for his first qualifier game in charge and with only six days to get it right against Laois.
With concussion, McHugh is a doubt, the fitness of Lacey and Gallagher has been compromised, while the quality of their reserves to operate at this level is clearly suspect. Martin O'Reilly lasted just 24 minutes, David Walsh came on for McHugh, but came off again for Ryan McHugh at the break, Ross Wherity made minimal impact.
They are badly wounded. It's not fatal but huge chinks in the armour have been exposed to cast the 2013 championship in such different light.
Scorers – Monaghan: C McManus (3fs), K Hughes 0-3 each, R Beggan 0-2 (1f, 1 '45'), T Freeman, C McGuinness, D Hughes, P Donaghy, D Mone 0-1 each. Donegal: C McFadden 0-4 (4fs), F McGlynn, R McHugh, R Kavanagh 0-1 each.
Monaghan – R Beggan 7; D Mone 8, D Wylie 7, C Walshe 8; V Corey 7, N McAdam 6, K Duffy 6; O Lennon 7, D Hughes 8; P Finlay 7, S Gollogly, P Donaghy 6; D Malone 6, K Hughes 8, C McManus 7. Subs: G Doogan for Gollogly (9), D Clerkin 6 for Doogan (51), C McGuinness for Malone (64), T Freeman for McManus (71).
Donegal – P Durcan 8; P McGrath 6, N McGee 6, E McGee 5; F McGlynn 6, K Lacey 5, A Thompson 5; R Kavanagh 7, R Bradley 5; M Murphy 6, L McLoone 4, M McHugh; P McBrearty 5, C McFadden 5, M O'Reilly 4. Subs: D Walsh 4 for McHugh, N Gallagher 8 for O'Reilly (23), R Wherity 4 for McLoone (32), R McHugh 6 for Walsh (h-t), M McElhinney for Bradley (64).
Ref – D Coldrick (Meath)