“Where are you going?” said the lanky garda at the foot of Fermanagh Street in Clones. “I have a pass for the car-park behind the stadium,” said The Irish Times. “Not at half-two for a four o’clock game you don’t,” he laughed, thinking it quite the most ludicrous thing he’d heard in many a long year. “Not a chance in hell.”
He was right, too. The window for driving up the hill to get to the car park had probably closed about an hour earlier. Now, it was thronged with thousands of Armagh and Derry people, young and old, in various stages of disrepair. Behind us, another garda had a young lad in a headlock and was bundling him into the back of the paddywagon. The lad’s friends agreed he deserved to be lifted. “Sure he spat in his face ...”
The Ulster final is decadent and depraved. It is also, for all its sins, thoroughly and organically unique. The thought struck walking up the hill that the old place might not see too many more of these. Days when the old town is full to bursting. Days when all the clans of Ulster football gather and gobble and gossip among themselves, as if the outside world is the bit that doesn’t make sense.
Will we be here in 10 years? You’d have to think it’s unlikely. For one thing, St Tiernach’s Park is probably on borrowed time as the chosen venue. The road has been so long for the redevelopment of Casement Park that nobody is inclined to believe it until they see it. But if the bid to hold the Euros goes to plan and Casement gets locked in, then presumably Clones Ulster finals will become a thing of the past. There’ll be fewer of them, at the very least.
And even if Casement doesn’t get built, the question still stands. Ten years from now, what shape will an Ulster final even take? What are the chances that it’s still going to be this big a deal, this vital a part of who Ulster GAA people are? For how many more years will counties still place the store in it that so many countless thousands did over the weekend?
“I couldn’t care much about the All-Ireland series at the minute,” said Derry captain Conor Glass to us afterwards. “We go out to win every game we can. I love Ulster football. Days like this in Clones don’t come round very often.
“We were coming here to win, Armagh were the same. I’m sure in a couple of days when the dust settles, we’ll obviously get back to work and focus on the All-Ireland series. But if you’re thinking further ahead and you’re not living in the moment, there’s not a lot of enjoyment in that really.”
All of which is fine and grand in the first year of the new championship structure. Nobody in Clones on Sunday felt anything other than the thrill of championship as the teams went at it. The atmosphere was easily the most feral, most intense of any game so far this year, hurling or football.
As the minutes ticked down through the second half of normal time and all through extra-time, it went to that place where every catch, every turnover, every free prompted screams and roars and held heads all around the ground.
For a full 45 minutes of football in normal time, the two teams alternated scores – Derry went two up, Armagh brought it back to one, Derry two, Armagh one. They did this for an astonishing 13 points in a row, ratcheting the tension up with every kick at goal. This was everything you want championship football to be.
But for how much longer will Ulster teams be happy to go on emptying themselves like this when they see their rivals sleepwalking through the other provincial finals? Derry have a fortnight to gather themselves for Monaghan coming to Celtic Park. Will Sunday leave a mark? A bigger one than was left on Kerry, Dublin or Galway, that’s for sure.
This might all sound like nonsense to anyone who was in Clones on Sunday. The Ulster final is nothing less than a core element of the lives of northern football people. Most of them will point to this iteration as proof that any talk of its possible demise is barmy. Why would you get rid of a day like that? On what grounds would you remove from the calendar something that works, something that people love?
But we know how the world turns. People have been saying the same thing about the Munster hurling final for a long time. It is still a thing that everyone wants to win, yes. But there has been an ever-so slight – yet undeniable – dilution of it since the round-robin came in. Surviving the Munster Championship has become more important than winning it. That’s the effect of structural change.
Much like the French Revolution, it’s too early to say what the effect of the championship format will ultimately be on the Ulster final. We’ll need to check back in five years or so to see if it has found itself watered down or washed out. If and when it is decoupled from the All-Ireland series, that’s when the rubber is likely to meet the road. How much will teams reasonably be prepared to throw at it then?
We don’t know. We can’t know. All we do know is what we saw on Sunday. A living, breathing, roiling, jitterbugging day of absolute intensity and root-deep zeal.
A place where logical arguments for the abolition of the provincials got wrapped in a headlock and bounced into the back of a cop van. And where even those who support those arguments could only shrug and say fair enough.