BY CHRIS MCNULTY
SIX times between the summers of 1999 and 2006 Donegal had hearts broken by Armagh.
In three Ulster finals (2002, 2004 and 2006), Donegal stood on the pitches at Clones and Croke Park gazing up at an Armagh captain ready to hoist the Anglo-Celt with the silversmith’s pen readied to inscribe ‘Ard Mhaca’ on its base. They were the eternal bridesmaids in those summers and the aisle seemed to get longer by each passing summer.
The beats of Donegal hearts quickened in 2003 as Christy Toye netted an early goal against Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final. True to form, Armagh came back and, on a day when Raymond Sweeney was sent off, Donegal were beaten. A gallant fight had stopped short. Another morale victory.
Toye featured in the successive defeats of ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, ‘05 and he was captain for the 2006 final.
Brendan Devenney played in all bar the 2006 games against the Orchard and he was back to play in 2007 when a late goal stole victory in a red hot first round clash at Sean MacCumhaill Park.
“We didn’t deserve to win any of them,” Devenney says now.
“Even the game we did beat them, in 2007, they were on the money that day, tactically and every way. They were knocking us about that day as well. They looked like they were ready for another All-Ireland push with that great team of theirs.”
The Donegal defeat would pave the path for Joe Kernan’s exit. A qualifier defeat against Derry the following week drew the curtains on the great Orchard era.
The annual meetings with Armagh took the fight from Devenney’s stomach. Even now there’s a pained expression on the St Eunan’s man as he reflects on those ghastly afternoons that put paid to hope after hope.
“I got wild angry at the whole Armagh thing,” he says.
“We had enough good players. The management kept changing and we didn’t have the structure.
“It was a wee bit personal. They just kept cutting off the channels and had three men back around you to tackle. At that stage there weren’t many teams doing it. People used to say that the forward needed to kick 1-4 or 1-5, but looking back now it’s annoying to think that we were so tactically inept. When a team without a plan meets a team that is so well drilled to a plan then the outcome is kind of inevitable.
“Many people would say they also had a better squad – and I wouldn’t argue with that. But they had the strength training and the system. Donegal would need to play them ten times to maybe beat them once. And that was only a maybe. Armagh had this sort of rigid training – but everything they did was based on how to win a football match.
“They had a great team anyway, but they were tactically shrewd and they’d started to bench up. They were so far ahead of us. Donegal was the perfect team for them to keep playing and keep beating repeatedly.
“We were nice to play against. I’d have loved to play against that Donegal team.”
The passing of time hasn’t removed the hurt for Devenney. If anything, it has hardened his feelings about a missed era. Now an astute pundit with the BBC, Devenney wonders what might have been.
“I used to look in at Steven McDonnell getting a ball and he’d be one-on-one with Raymond Sweeney after taking a beauty of a diagonal ball in from Paul McGrane…Jesus, I’d have loved that service and that kind of scenario,” he says.
“It never happened that I was ever one-on-one with an Armagh defender like that, put it that way.
“As time goes on it nearly makes you more angry. You look now at what Jim is doing with Donegal and the level of coaching they have. We had no-one to coach us how to play against Armagh or to show us how to adapt to playing against that. We were just thrown in like lambs.
“It was only later in my career, say when St Eunan’s were playing against Jim’s Naomh Conaill that I’d have seen the importance of getting inside the guys’ heads. You’d be going to a forward at half-time and he mightn’t have scored but he’s worked the socks off. You’d be helping them to compete and telling them they’re doing exactly what you want.
“That’s what sickened me in a way about Donegal – we had none of that. It wouldn’t have been like that if we had the right people involved.”
Devenney’s first meeting with Armagh was in ‘99 when the sides drew in Ballybofey, Michael Hegarty swinging over a late equalising point on his Championship debut. The replay in Clones was won by Armagh, 2-11 to 0-12, in what was Declan Bonner’s last game as Donegal senior manager.
As the years passed, Donegal came always armed with fresh hope, but it never seemed to extend to expecting to turn over Armagh.
“They did have our number, no doubt,” Devenney says.
“They’d get a goal or a couple of points and all of a sudden you’d be thinking: ‘We need four here’. It was tough and you just kind of thought: ‘Here we go again’.
“We always thought we could win and we always felt that on a given day we were good enough. They weren’t invincible, although some people treated them as if they were. Some days we weren’t that far away. We never felt inferior and we were always positive going into the games. When it came down to it, though, they had the system, they had the players and they had the fitness.”
John McEntee hit a goal in the 2002 final as Armagh won Ulster to launch their successful bid for a first All-Ireland win. Jim McGuinness netted a goal for Donegal and was denied a second by a superb Kieran McGeeney block. Armagh steamrolled Donegal in the 2004 final, Oisin McConville and Paddy McKeever scoring 1-3 each and Diarmuid Marsden landing 1-2 as Armagh strolled to a 3-15 to 0-11 win.
When Devenney netted a late goal in 2004, it was later described by Joe Brolly on RTE as akin to ‘the wasp stinging the elephant’. Armagh won 3-11 to 1-10. Eamon McGee, Brian Roper, Adrian Sweeney and Francie Bellew were sent off, but Armagh coasted to the win.
Devenney would love to feature in the current Donegal forward line. He says: “I’d relish it now because you’d look down the other end and our defence would be doing the same to their forwards. We played into their hands. The way Jim plays it, there’s no heat on individual players. He’s actually simplified the thing whereas a lot of people think he has complicated the whole thing.
“We always thought that we were close. We outplayed them in a couple of games, but they were going to win the game no matter what.”
Devenney looks at Donegal now and sees a lot of the game qualities that were once Armagh’s traits.
He believes McGuinness’s team could go the distance.
He says: “There were questions about Donegal – but not after that Ulster final. In that performance against Monaghan you could see the desire, the drive and the focus. They have serious appetite. To get that ready takes so much effort and commitment.
“I just looked at them in the Ulster final and thought: ‘Wow’. I saw it a couple of times in the Derry game, but I thought they were easily double scores better than Monaghan. I can’t see anyone breaking down their system.
“They’re so proud of that defence. Down the road, I don’t see anyone getting through it.
“Who wants to play Donegal now? No-one.”
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