BY CHRIS MCNULTY IN ARMAGH
BREATHLESS and heartbroken, the Donegal Under-21 manager, Maxi Curran, struggled to put Wednesday night’s Ulster final defeat to Cavan into words.
The Downings man watched his side take charge of an arm wrestle at the Athletic Grounds. Points by Ryan McHugh and Eoin McHugh had them ahead in a match during which they trailed most of the way. Having flexed their muscles at just the right time, they seemed poised to claim a dramatic win.
The house came tumbling in around them, however, as Liam Buchanan wriggled Cavan ahead and Peter Reilly’s side pulled clear when they tacked on three points to seal a pulsating win.
Donegal were crestfallen.
Although Cavan had been the better team for the most part, the brace of points by the McHughs set them up for the silverware.
A little naivety could perhaps be blamed for the way they allowed Enda Hession burst through the woods to tee up Buchanan for the game-winning goal. A more ruthless approach could have prevented Hession making such a deep incision but, as it was, Cavan’s big-game experience really told.
Joe Dillon had hit a goal in the first half and Cavan led 1-2 to 0-2 at the break. Donegal kept a lid on them for most of the second half, Cavan scoring just once in almost half-an-hour, as Curran’s boys inched their way back into the tie, only for a whirlwind finish snatching the cup from their clutch.
“Heartbreak is a term that is bandied about a lot by losing teams, but that is as close as you’ll get to heartbreak,” a dejected Curran said afterwards.
“I’m very proud of the players. They put in an immense shift. We gathered on August 10th to get ready for this. I’m very proud of them for getting this far.
“We’re immensely proud of the boys for their second-half performance and the way they dragged themselves into the game, got ahead.
“We were in a position where we shouldn’t have lost. That’s the only thing we can be disappointed with. We just lacked the wee bit of cuteness when we needed it. They had players on the field with the experience of closing things out.”
Cavan have now won the last four Ulster Under-21 finals and have appeared in the last five deciders. For Donegal and their manager the road ahead is less assured. Curran was non-commital about his own future after a defeat that draws to an end a three-year spell in charge of the Under-21s.
He said: “I can’t stress enough how difficult the year has been. It’s not the night to talk about it, but it’s been a very difficult year.”