Clones on a grey Saturday evening in the middle of May is not the most appetising of places in which to find yourself, especially if the reason you’ve travelled to Monaghan’s famous border-town is to watch a National League game. This is exactly what Derry fans found themselves doing in May 2000, when the Oak Leafers took on All-Ireland champions Meath in an NFL Final replay.
A league game in middle of the Championship
The game came a week after Derry had opened up their Ulster Championship campaign with a facile victory over Cavan, and it’s intriguing to think how we might have approached this Final if defeat had befallen us at Breffni Park.
Imagine playing a league game after you’ve been knocked out of the Championship. Imagine smiling for photos on a Church & General podium knowing that the NFL game you’ve just won would be your last inter-county outing until the following January.
Would any Derry fans have even made the trip?
Lucky enough, we were spared finding out how fans, management and players might have treated such a unique scenario and instead were able to look forward to attempting to pick up another National title safe in the knowledge that the summer that was yet to truly start, was not already over.
The drawn NFL Final at Croke Park may have lacked quality but it was a memorable encounter, primarily for Anthony Tohill’s spectacular first half goal.
The Swatragh-man rose highest to field a Meath kickout before passing the ball on and making his way into the forward line, from where he collected possession back again and drove the ball to the net, off the post. Tohill at his best.
And he would reach those heights again in the replay at Clones when he raced onto an inch-perfect, defence dissecting pass from teenager Paddy Bradley and smashed the ball to the net.
It was those two moments that would define the 2000 NFL Final, and are sitting pride of place in a packed Tohill highlight reel. But they were out of keeping with the remainder of that decider.
At Clones, Derry really only played well for about ten minutes, scoring 1-5 without reply in the first half. Meath brought themselves back into contention before the break with Trevor Giles pulling the strings from centre half-forward and Ollie Murphy in dangerous poaching form at full-forward.
All-Star Graham Geraghty however, was sitting in the Gerry Arthurs Stand. Geraghty had got into an altercation with Derry goalkeeper Eoin McCloskey in the drawn match at Croke Park and both players were suspended for the replay.
The art of defence
So with Tohill outplaying John McDermott at midfield and the combined threat of Enda Muldoon and Bradley in the forward line, the Oak Leafers had put themselves into a decent position at half-time, leading the Royals by two points.
And then, in the second half – almost without any warning – Derry gave a defensive masterclass.
A rather terse, online post-game report from RTÉ claimed that Derry “looked at times as though they did not wish to score”. Some of our more verbally-challenged GAA pundits might have labelled it ‘puke football’. But the phrase was yet to be coined.
The Italians have a great word for this defensive style: catenaccio. A proper footballing concept. A vision. They give it the respect it deserves.
Call it what you like, that performance by the Oak Leafers was an exercise in total pragmatism (a similar tactic helped defeat Tyrone in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2001), and only four points were scored in the entire second half (two apiece). Almost every red and white shirt got behind the ball as Derry manager Eamonn Coleman decided that only a goal could win it for Meath. They never came close.
If you ever get your hands on a copy of that match, watch in awe as the second-half clock just drains. It’s a thing of beauty.
This was the blanket defence before it had even been invented. Another masterstroke from Coleman that helped capture his second NFL title as Oak Leaf manager.
They would have their swansong in 2001, but on that dark Saturday night in Clones the great Derry team of the 1990s – and their illustrious manager – captured one last national title.
And best of all? This wasn’t just any old Meath team. These were the current All-Ireland champions, managed by the great Seán Boylan. This was Seán Boylan’s Meath team.
And they couldn’t find a way past Derry.
NFL Final Replay (May 20th 2000, Clones): Derry 1-8 Meath 0-9
Derry: M Conlon; K McKeever, S Lockhart, D O’Neill; G Coleman, H Downey, P McFlynn; A Tohill (1-3, 0-2 frees) D Heaney; N McCusker (0-1), D Dougan (0-1), R Rocks; P Bradley (0-1, free), E Muldoon (0-1), J McBride (0-1). Subs: C Gilligan for Rocks, S McLarnon for Gilligan.
Meath: C Sullivan; M O’Reilly, D Fay, C Murphy; N Nestor, A Moyles, R Kealy; N Crawford, J McDermott; E Kelly, T Giles (0-6, 0-5 frees), D Curtis; O Murphy (0-2), R Fitzsimons, J Devine. Subs: B Callaghan (0-1) for Devine, T Dowd for Curtis, S Dillon for Kelly.