IT WAS typically tense and tight as Naomh Conaill advanced to their third Donegal SFC final in a row, after scraping past St Eunan’s in the first semi-final.
Naomh Conaill 0-15 St Eunan’s 1-11
By Chris McNulty at Sean MacCumhaill Park. Pictures by Evan Logan
Eoghan McGettigan’s free, a minute into added time, pushed Naomh Conaill in front after the scores were level eight times over the hour.
The drama wasn’t done yet and, with almost eight minutes over time played, goalkeeper Shaun Patton clipped a 45-metre free wide of the target.
Naomh Conaill have lost the last two finals to Kilcar and Gaoth Dobhair, but they’re still standing and now firmly on the hunt to atone for the silverware they’ve left behind.
Naomh Conaill were composed during the testing stages after an Eoin McGeehan goal, in the 42nd minute, looked as if it might well be the day’s big moment.
St Eunan’s followers gasped when Niall O’Donnell’s free dropped and AJ Gallagher, the Naomh Conaill full-back, batted down. But waiting on the break was McGeehan, who steered to the net from close range.
McGeehan bagged a hat-trick last weekend in the big quarter-final win over Milford and his goal swung the pendulum to draw St Eunan’s level, just when it seemed as if Naomh Conaill had a control on the destiny.
O’Donnell’s free, two minutes later, had St Eunan’s in front for the first time since the mid-point of the first half.
Six minutes into the second half, Dermot Molloy – just on as a half-time replacement for the Glenties outfit – tucked over after he collected from a long-range Ciaran Thompson free. Molloy’s score left St Eunan’s facing a four-point deficit. It felt like a mountain.
Yet, when Brian McIntyre ended a barren 20-minute spell without a score for St Eunan’s and Niall O’Donnell converted a free, the Cathedral Towners were back within striking distance.
The tide turned when McGeehan finished. O’Donnell’s delicious point – his seventh of the afternoon – just after Caolan Ward added his name to the list, put St Eunan’s two in front heading for the final ten minutes of the latest chapter in what has become almost an annual joust now.
This was the 15th Championship tussle between these clubs since 2005 when, on a seismic October Sunday, Naomh Conaill shook the world. After Brendan McDyer forced a replay, Naomh Conaill toppled St Eunan’s for the first of their three SFC final wins. Four years ago – the last time St Eunan’s visited the final – Naomh Conaill also trumped in the decider having hammered their rivals in an O’Donnell Park clash in the group stage.
The meetings of these sides have defined many of their autumns with St Eunan’s overcoming Naomh Conaill in finals in 2009 – when they completed a three-in-a-row – and in the rapid-fire post-Sam blast of 2012.
McDyer might have done better when Naomh Conaill waved forward with Eunan Doherty’s pass opening up the path. Shaun Patton saved from McDyer’s shot at a time when Naomh Conaill could have inched in front.
McGeehan had a sniff of another goal when he ghosted around the back to get a hand on Rory Kavanagh’s ball in, but he was unable to direct it home and Naomh Conaill restored parity four minutes from the end through Jeaic Mac Ceallabhuí. The margins were as thin as could be imagined and McGettigan sent the men in blue and white on the road to a third successive final.
Kavanagh returned from suspension to take the place of Michéal Martin at full-forward after the former Donegal player missed their impressive quarter-final win over Milford last Saturday.
St Eunan’s were emphatic and ruthless all at once as they hammered Milford 5-22 to 0-11. St Eunan’s, on a day when they had 11 different scorers, were only two points off Donegal’s all-time record score for a team in a single Donegal SFC game of 9-12.
It had been said of the black and amber that they had become too reliant on Niall O’Donnell, who posted the bulk of their group stage scores.
The teams were level five times in the first half, including four times in a lively opening ten minutes.
Naomh Conaill’s new adventure, which had been absent in the last two years when they suffered agony at the hands of Kilcar and Gaoth Dobhair at the final hurdles, saw them kick four points in a row to lead 0-8 to 0-6 at the break
Eunan Doherty and Ciaran Thompson levelled the scores before former Donegal star Anthony Thompson boomed Naomh Conaill in front.
Late in the half, Kieran Gallagher arched over from the right-hand side after Naomh Conaill made another telling incision.
St Eunan’s had led 0-6 to 0-4 by the 15th minute, but didn’t register again for the remainder of the first period.
O’Donnell scored two in as many minutes midway through the half, including one tap-over free he won after a jersey pull by Ultan Doherty.
Leo McLoone clipped the first point of the afternoon just 15 seconds in and frees by Charles McGuinness and Ciaran Thompson kept Naomh Conaill in touch before they edged in front in an efficient close to the first chapter.
Ciaran Thompson hammered over three minutes after the restart to put Naomh Conaill three in front. Molloy widened the margin a little more, but they needed to dig into the reservoir to recover after McGeehan’s goal with Mac Ceallabhuí levelling things up four minutes from the end.
Naomh Conaill: Stephen McGrath; Ultan Doherty, AJ Gallagher, Jeaic Mac Ceallabhuí (0-1); Ethan O’Donnell, Anthony Thompson (0-1), Eoin Waide; Ciaran Thompson (0-3, 1f), Charles McGuinness (0-3f); Brendan McDyer, Eoghan McGettigan (0-3, 2f), Eunan Doherty (0-2); Kevin McGettigan, Leo McLoone (0-1), Kieran Gallagher. Subs: Dermot Molloy (0-1) for K.Gallagher (half-time), Stephen Molloy for U.Doherty (44), Nathan Byrne for McGuinness (51), Marty Boyle for McDyer (61), Kieran Gallagher for Mac Ceallabhuí (64).
St Eunan’s: Shaun Patton; Conor Parke, Conor Morrison, Aaron Deeney; Sean Ryan, Eamonn Doherty, Darragh Mulgrew; Conor O’Donnell, Sean McGettigan; Brian McIntyre (0-2), James Kelly, Caolan Ward (0-1); Niall O’Donnell (0-7, 4f), Rory Kavanagh, Eoin McGeehan (1-1). Sub: Peter McEniff for Ryan (60).
Referee: Enda McFeely (St Mary’s, Convoy).