My Greatest Game: Monaghan legend Paul Finlay

Monaghan celebrate beating Donegal
Monaghan's win over Donegal brought a 25-year wait for an Ulster Championship to an end

Few people in Monaghan would have argued against their underdog tag before the 2013 Ulster Championship final.

The year marked a quarter of a century since the Farney men's last provincial triumph, an unwelcome milestone that added new fuel to the narrative surrounding Ulster's nearly men.

Recent history had not been kind to Monaghan, but the same could not be said for opponents Donegal.

Jim McGuinness' reigning All-Ireland champions were out for a hat-trick of Ulster titles, out to put an exclamation mark, if one were needed, on the end of their status as the province's undisputed kingpins.

For Monaghan forward Paul Finlay, the pressure of time both past and present weighed heavy on his shoulders.

Finlay was well-versed in stories from the glory days of old. His father Kieran scored 1-9 to steal the headlines in Monaghan's 1979 Ulster final victory over Donegal, and he played when the county repeated the feat six years later.

For Paul, in his 10th year of inter-county football, time was ticking as he sought to emulate his father's greatest moments.

Having burst onto the scene with an eight-point display against Armagh in the 2003 provisional round, forward Finlay was an established star of the team when Monaghan twice fell at the final hurdle against Tyrone.

Paul Finlay Ulster
Finlay's Ulster Championship hopes were dashed in the final by Tyrone in both 2007 and 2010

"2007 was tough, but 2010 was the most disappointing for me," reflects Finlay, who would retire in 2016 as Monaghan's record scorer.

"I remember going in in great form having beaten Armagh and Fermanagh, there was big anticipation that this was the year were could get the better of Tyrone, but it didn't happen.

"We can talk about us maybe not performing to the best if our ability but I always looks back at the Tyrone team and you just have to accept that they were awesome."

Three years on from the Tyrone defeat and with new manager Malachy O'Rourke at the helm, Monaghan's philosophy had shifted to one of relentless work rate above all else. For the first time in Finlay's career, as much was expected of him in defence as it was in attack.

"It was coming to a point in my career where I was in my thirties and the whole game was changing," Finlay says.

"In the forward line, particularly the half-forward line, it was all about work rate and working back as much as trying to go up the other end of the pitch.

"It was a part of my game that I had to try and change, Malachy had brought in this huge intensity and work-rate, and the whole team had to adapt,".

Paul Finlay recalls 2013 Ulster Championship final

In the build-up to the 2013 final, Donegal boss McGuinness has earmarked Monaghan's "ferociousness" as the characteristic most likely to unsettle his side and so it proved.

Monaghan's 0-13 to 0-7 victory was not a smash and grab, but a breathless storming of the gates.

Having seized initiative from the throw-in to score the opening five points, the Farney men's focus on never letting up was evident as Donegal, against all the odds, never truly looked like they had wrestled enough momentum to reduce the arrears.

"The odds were stacked against us, the mite of Donegal and what they had done previously, it was an impossible task for this Monaghan side to turn them over," Finlay reflects.

"That performance was just huge, built on intensity and sheer honest work-rate.

"To a man, we emptied ourselves and the performance followed.

"On that day we didn't let our heads wander until that final whistle went and the crowd were on the pitch."

The end to a long and painful wait

It was a final whistle that was met with jubilation which, even for an Ulster Championship final, few present on the day will have experienced before and perhaps even since.

Monaghan had reclaimed Clones after 25 years in the wilderness, having watched every county aside from Antrim and Fermanagh climb the steps and lift the Anglo-Celt trophy at St Tiernach's Park.

"Being from Monaghan, you're so used to seeing all the different teams from Ulster coming to Clones and having their day in the sun," says Finlay.

"It was a long, painful wait and there were many a day where you felt it wasn't going to come.

"I know several players though Ulster who had outstanding careers but didn't actually get to lift that trophy.

"That atmosphere on that day is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my days.

Monaghan lift Anglo-Celt
A delighted Clones crowd watched Monaghan lift the trophy for the first time since 1998

"You're experiencing something huge. Monaghan had been starved of that feeling for so long.

"I remember the first supporter who came to me on the pitch after the final whistle went was one of my aunties.

"I'm not sure how she got there first, but it's something that has stuck with me from that day."

'Win gave Monaghan a major shot in the arm'

It was the breakthrough that Monaghan had been searching for, the validation that they were among the elite teams not just in Ulster but in Ireland.

In his penultimate provincial Championship, Finlay and his team-mates would once again hold the Anglo-Celt aloft having once again bested Donegal in the final.

A desperately disappointing 2019 campaign was Monaghan's first real blip since those Ulster triumphs, in the years since that 2013 victory the Farney men have established themselves as a Division One side, and agonisingly missed out return to the All-Ireland final for the first time since 1930 when they fell to a one-point defeat by Tyrone in the 2018 semi-final.

Paul Finlay
Ballybay man Finlay retired from inter-county football in 2016 having scored 5-548 in 168 Monaghan appearances

"Winning breeds confidence," Finlay says.

"To get over the line in 2013 gave the whole county a major shot in the arm.

"I suppose being able to anticipate winning big matches as opposed to hoping meant we could go in there with confidence, knowing that you're just as good or even better than the others teams in the competition when you get the performance right."

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