Donegal’s passage to a fifth Ulster final in-a-row was not a smooth one in a tense battle in Clones on Saturday evening.
As expected Derry put up the roadblocks and for a period at the end of the first half there were big question marks over Donegal’s ability to find a way.
The sides deadlocked at 0-5 each at the break. Donegal had been held scoreless for a 20-minute period but a burst in the first ten minutes of the second half saw them take a winning five point lead.
It was almost a replica of last year’s encounter in Celtic Park when Donegal turned around a two point half-time deficit.
The goal, on 45 minutes, was clinically finished by Martin O’Reilly, just as he did against Armagh two weeks earlier. The score proved to be the big turning point in the game as the remainder of the contest became a dogfight with defences again to the fore. Near the end the Derry frustration was vented with Brendan Rogers and Ciaran McFaul black carded for serious fouls on Odhran MacNiallais and Ryan McHugh. Indeed both were lucky not to see straight red, such was the reckless nature of the challenges.
For long periods Donegal struggled to make inroads against this Derry side. Maybe the 7 o’clock start was a factor but energy and intensity levels were not up to the required standard. The decision to leave a clearly injured Patrick McBrearty on the field until the final minutes was also a talking point. With McBrearty along for long periods up front, the Donegal defence lacked a cutting edge because he was not at his best.
The opening half was almost divided between two quarters. Donegal were ahead by 0-4 to 0-1 after 11 minutes with Odhran MacNiallais, Patrick McBrearty (2) and Christy Toye on target while Eoin Bradley had the Derry point from a free.
Donegal were going well with Ryan McHugh and Christy Toye making headway while one of the highlights was a Colm McFadden pass from the endline to Christy Toye on the 45m line!
Derry were given a way back into the contest after a silly push by Neil McGee which saw the referee give Derry a free in front of the posts. It was an award that baffled some as two Donegal defenders had been fouled and the ball had been waved wide before McGee’s push.
Derry were back level by 21 minutes with Caolan O’Boyle (who caused many problems early on) and Mark Lynch pointing.
Donegal’s high ball into Neil Gallagher was not working and even Michael Murphy was off target with a crossfield ball. Colm McFaden finally broke through to hit the target while Chrissy McKaigue burst forward to level matters. Just before the break Derry ‘keeper Thomas Mallon made a great stop as Michael Murphy got his fist to a Ryan McHugh centre.
Half-time: Donegal 0-5, Derry 0-5.
Donegal got their noses in front inside 55 seconds of restart with Colm McFadden pointing while Derry hit two bad wides. Michael Murphy landed a monster point from 55m before Niall Holly responded for Derry.
Colm McFadden and Neil McGee were involved as Martin McElhinney edged Donegal two clear on 44 minutes and a minute later from kick-out Neil Gallagher pounded to drive forward, play a one-two with McBrearty before releasing Martin O’Reilly, who cooly rounded Mallon to fire to the corner of the net.
The Derry response was good as Mark Lynch (47m free), Caolan O’Boyle and Benny Heron pointed, the latter availing of slackness in the Donegal defence as Lynch took a free short.
Michael Murphy stepped up again to push Donegal three clear after a McBrearty free came back off the post but with six minutes left Ciaran McFaul reduced the margin to two once more.
But that proved to be the final score as Donegal put up the shutters and Derry’s frustration was reflected in the black cards for Rogers and McFaul.
Donegal: Paul Durcan; Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Eamon McGege; Ryan McHugh, Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn; Neil Gallagher Odhran MacNiallais (0-1); Christy Toye (0-1), Martin McElhinney (0-1), Martin O’Reilly (1-0); Patrick McBrearty (0-2,1f), Michael Murphy (0-2), Colm McFadden (0-2). Subs., Mark McHugh for McFadden 57; Anthony Thompson for Toye 61; Hugh McFadden for McElhinney 71; David Walsh for McBrearty 72.
Derry: Thomas Mallon; Oisin Duffy, Brendan Rogers, Dermot McBride; Kevin Johnston, Christopher McKaigue (0-1), Ciaran McFaul (0-1); Niall Holly (0-1), Fergal Doherty; Sean Leo McGoldrick, Mark Lynch (0-2,1f), Enda Lynn; Danny Heavron, Eoin Bradley (0-2,2f), Caolan O’Boyle (0-2). Subs., Benny Heron (0-1) for McGoldrick 47; Liam McGoldrick for Duffy 48; Terence O’Brien for Lynn 50; Niall Loughlin for Bradley 61; Enda Lynn for O’Boyle 64; Conor McAtamney for Rogers, bcard 69.
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare)