A night to forget or a night to remember in Ballybofey?

I travelled on the bus with Antrim minor footballers when they lost to Tyrone in the 1997 Ulster final in Clones. Brian White’s Saffrons had performed memorably that year and expectations were high that they could reverse a defeat to the same opposition in the final a year earlier.

However a day that had started badly with a mix-up over the booking of the Antrim team coach got worse as the day progressed. Running late, Antrim had to get a Garda escort from Monaghan to Clones and as a result didn’t have time for a proper warm up.

Paddy Logan, ‘Farmer’ Dunlop and co. performed admirably that day before losing to a good Tyrone side still it seemed only a matter of time until we would lift another Ulster title. A year later Antrim lost again to the same opposition in the Ulster final, this time by a more convincing margin.

We have to go back to 1982 to see where Antrim last won an Ulster MFC title when they beat Down by 3-10 to 2-5 so what took me to Ballybofey for an 8pm throw-in when a victory for the Antrim Minor hurler 25 miles up the road at Corrigan looked a more inviting fixture.

We at the Saffron Gael are a democracy! Sean Paul and big Kevin had already booked the prime slot for the evening and anyway, I prefer the big ball game. I still have vivid memories of 1964 when my cousin Sean McNeilly, Alistar Scullion and their Antrim colleagues produced a memorable performance to overcome Cavan in the Ulster final at Casement.

With my brother, ‘Curly’ we then travelled with my father to Croker for the All Ireland semi-final against Cork where Antrim lost to a good Cork side. Great days indeed and even in my twilight years I dream of days like that again.

To be fair it was with hope rather than great expectation that Curly and myself made the journey last night. To be truthful we knew little about Donegal who’s preparations, like Antrim’s have been seriously compromised by Covid restrictions.

We were to find out on the night that Donegal have played challenge games against Mayo’ Roscommon, Derry and a couple of others, winning them all so Seamus Hefferon’s Saffrons were facing formidable opposition.

Everything that could have gone wrong for this young Antrim side, went wrong with Cargin’s Tom Shivers limping out of the fixture shortly after scoring an Antrim equaliser. Tiernan McCormick took a heavy knock early on at a time when he was looking impressive and the Moneyglass lad’s strong runs were providing an outlet for the Antrim defence.

A short time later they lost their captain, Connor Hastings to suspected concussion following another over robust challenge and the wheels were slowly coming off the Antrim wagon. McCormick bravely battled on to half time before being replaced and in the minutes leading up to half time the Saffrons were still hanging in there, trailing 0-10 to 0-6.

The Donegal keeper, Aaron Cullen brought of a blocking save to deny Niall Fallon a goal that would have put the young Saffrons in a strong position and the visitors were caught with a killer counter-punch as Donegal goaled at the other end to move seven clear at the short whistle.

A very good Donegal side moved on in the second half to win convincingly as Antrim heads dropped in the searing heat of MacCumhaill Park and it will be interesting to see just how far Donegal go in this year’s championship while Antrim will be left to reflect.

They were well beaten by an excellent Donegal side who looked bigger, stronger and fitter but while the result is disappointing the management can take some satisfaction from the performance of a number of players on the night.

Tiernan McCormick was very impressive until injured and Shay O’Neill gave it everything as Antrim sweeper while Ciaran McGennis, Johnny Hannon and Fintan O’Boyle were others who performed well.

A phone call by the brother to big Kevin at Corrigan as the full-time whistle sounded in Ballybofey provided a moment of relief with the news that Antrim had defeated Down in the Peadar O’Liathain Cup final as we headed back to the car for the journey home.

It’s been a while since I’ve witnessed an Antrim Minor football win in the Ulster championship but I’m the eternal optimist. There’s no quick fix to the problem. Seamus Hastings and his backroom team have worked tirelessly with this group of players as have their predecessors and hard work is the thing that needs to continue.

Maybe for counties like Antrim a strong group of players will only come along once in a while like in 64, 82, 97 and 98 and I for one certainly haven’t given up hope of seeing Antrim winning another Ulster Minor title.

In the meantime all of those who represented Antrim in Ballybofey will go back to their clubs, perhaps chastened by the result but never the less better off by the experience and I’m sure we will see a number of them represent their clubs and county with distinction in the not too distant future.

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