As two late changes to the Donegal team were announced shortly before throw-in at Celtic Park on Sunday, there were little muffles of confusion.
Already without the suspended Rory Kavanagh, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness opted to leave his two other protagonists at centre-field on the substitutes’ bench, as Paddy McGrath made a first appearance in nine months and Leaving Cert student Darach O’Connor’s participation raised some eyebrows.
Neil Gallagher wasn’t deemed fit enough to start with an ankle ligament injury, while Martin McElhinney would also be held in reserve.
In 2010, McGuinness won an Ulster U-21 Championship with a largely unconventional midfield, with those in the central lines picking up the responsibilities compacting when required like an accordion.
McGuinness, who has always shown a streak of improvisation to tactically prepare for a given situation, was pressing the gamble button once more.
“The strategy was to manage the situation around the middle of the park,” he said.
Michael Murphy was withdrawn from his natural habitat in the forward line to supplement Christy Toye at midfield.
Donegal kept in touch with Derry, trailing 0-6 to 0-4 at the interval having played against the breeze that rolled towards the Brandywell.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t get more scores in the first half,” McGuinness added.
“It should have been closer to being level at half-time, but we were two points down and had to accept that.”
McGuinness isn’t one from stripping wallpaper from dressingroom walls so the plan half-time was to introduce McElhinney, facilitating the repositioning of Murphy.
A bit like Donegal so often managed in 2012, the third quarter was the game-breaker.
Murphy provided an axis from which Leo McLoone scored the only goal of the game three minutes into the second half.
Expertly taken, McLoone’s goal was the bedrock in the eventual 1-11 to 0-11 win.
It wasn’t a flawless victory but the game management of McGuinness and his players was exceptional.
“We knew Derry were going to play possession football so we just had to be patient and do the same,” McGuinness added.
“I thought we did it really well, especially in the last 10 minutes. We wanted a lay a foundation for the second half when we planned to get some good ball into Michael. That’s how it panned out.”
Murphy had a fine game, typified with one exceptional sideline, which flew over the Derry crossbar following, presumably, the encouragement from McGuinness in his ear to have a pop.
The Donegal captain was joined by McLoone, Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn, Ryan McHugh, McElhinney and Karl Lacey, who excelled on Derry’s talisman Mark Lynch, as those whose showings stood out.
Paul Durcan’s kick-outs were accused of being patchy during the Allianz League. On Sunday though, barring one forgivable slip, the Donegal goalkeeper’s executions were more than decent.
There was one incident, which concluded in the 64th minute that saw Derry, who had possession for the guts of 90 seconds without so much as a glimpse of an alleyway of opportunity, kick a hopeless wide from Gerard O’Kane.
It summed up their frustration and Donegal’s discipline perfectly.
Donegal maintained their composure when in possession. McLoone’s final point was the final act in an 18-pass, 63-second move.
“Derry came in here as favourites on the back of their League campaign,” McGuinness said.
“They came in with a lot of confidence and they played like a team with a lot of confidence. Our boys dealt with that well.
“They know what’s involved in an Ulster Championship and what’s involved in the preparation for that and trying to win it.
“From our point of view we were focussed on trying to get things right for this game. We prepared as best we could and we got over the line.”
Every January, Donegal’s sole priority is the Ulster championship opener and McGuinness teams are always well primed.
“It’s the same routine for us every single year,” McGuinness added.
“The Ulster championship is absolutely massive and it’s where you want to be. You prepare a team to try and hit a peak for the first round of the championship.
“Maybe in some other provinces - without being disrespectful - teams can try to peak for later in the competition.
“You cannot do that in Ulster and you’ve got to be ready from the first day out. It means everything to our players and management.”