Donegal minors upset the odds and got Donegal supporters in party mood with a four point win over the hometown favourites and reigning Ulster champions Cavan, in Sunday’s curtain-raiser, in Kingspan Breffni Park.
In what was a very encouraging performance - by a good stretch their best of the season so far - they recovered from a slow start and three early Cavan points to run out comfortable winners.
For much of the game it was Donegal who played and looked like champions as Ryan McHugh, Eoin McHugh, Darragh Mulgrew and John McGarvey dicated around the middle and Willie Gillespie and Stephen McBrearty showed well and played with glue on their hands.
Conor Parke and Mark Gallagher were solid too in the pivotal defence positions with Parke putting the shackles on Cavan dangerman Madden, once he got over his early nerves.
Gillespie scored two of his team’s first half points with Ryan McHugh posting two – one free – and Mulgrew, Aodhan McGinley and Conor Harkin posting one each to send Donegal in 0-8 to 0-4 at half-time.
Cavan did threaten in the early exchanges at the start of both halves and had Sean Gilcreest, Niall Walsh, Conor Madden and Andrew Graham to thank for their opening half scores.
Gilcreest, Walsh and Madden all diced the posts in a very uncomfortable opening five minutes for Donegal. But once they settled Gillespie stroked over his two points either side of a fine strike from McGinley to level it. And after Harkin split the post to tie up the game for the second time towards the end of the first quarter hour Donegal were the more composed and better unit.
They dominated the second quarter with Mulgrew and McHugh powering forward to raise flags and McHugh also pointing from a free and Brendan McNelis got in on the scoring act they were four in front at the break. And it was no more than their territorial and possession advantage deserved as Cavan played most of the half - except for their early flurry - on the back foot.
Andrew Graham with a close range free on 12 minutes was Cavan final score of the opening half-hour a statistic that underlines superiority in the first 30 minutes.
Cavan manager Dermot McCabe made a number of alterations at the interval and they did put on a spurt at the start of the second period.
And with Vincent Coyle, Ben Kiernan and Enda Flanagan all firing over, the margin was down to one again. But Donegal were soon four up again and cruising when Brendan McNelis rattled the Cavan net with a super goal.
The big Ardara man took a high ball from Conor Harkin in front of the posts and seconds later ‘keeper Shay Rooney was grasping at fresh ear as the ball nestled in the roof of his net.
That was on 38 minutes and when Mulgrew on 41 and Ryan McHugh on 44, fired over carbon copies the margin was out to six points, 1-10 to 0-7.
Cavan did enjoy another good spell again with points courtesy of Madden and Graham, they had the gap back to three points with the best part of ten minutes remaining.
But with Donegal showing their metal and Mulgrew and Ryan McHugh finishing strong and Raymond McNamee rising to the challenge it was Donegal who had the last say.
Ryan McHugh converted from 13 metres to restore the four point of advantage with the best part of five minutes still on the clock.
The win, Donegal’s first in the championship in three seasons, means Donegal are through to the quarter-final and meeting with Derry next Sunday evening in Healy Park.
Donegal: Daniel Mullarkey; Gary Kelly, Conor Parke, John Rose; Ryan McHugh (0-4,2f), Mark Gallagher, Eoin McHugh; Darragh Mulgrew (0-2), Raymond McNamee; Conor Harkin (0-1), John McGarvey, Aodhan McGinley (0-1); Stephen McBrearty, Brendan McNelis (1-1) Willie Gillespie (0-2). Subs: Hugh McFadden for B McNelis (44); Calum Gallagher for A McGinley (50); John Fitzgerald for C Harkin (62).
Cavan: Shay Rooney; Aaron Watson, Conor Smith, Fergal Reilly; Barry Fortune, Ciaran Brady, Gerard Smith; Michael Argue, Senan Gilcreest (0-1); Aaron Browne, Jonathan McCabe, Enda Flanagan; Niall Walsh (0-1), Conor Madden (0-2), Andrew Graham (0-2,1f). Subs: Vincent Coyle (0-1) for A Brown (14); Liam Buchanan for J McCabe; Ben Kiernan (0-1) for S Gilcreest (both half-time); Vincent Coyle (0-1) for A Brown (14); Padraig Faulkner for B Fortune (42).
Referee: Niall Cullen (Fermanagh).
Man of the match
Ryan McHugh kicked four points, two from frees and overall was the man that made Donegal tick. His commanding role at the back and penetrating runs from the half-back line were very influential in Donegal getting back into the game after Cavan’s good start.
He was given a run for his money by Darragh Mulgrew who turned in a first class display at midfield and, like McHugh, his powerful runs put Cavan under pressure.
Brendan McNelis’s goal on 38 minutes restored Donegal’s four point advantage seconds after Enda Flanagan kicked Cavan’s third point in quick succession at the start of the second period. And when Mulgrew and Ryan mcHugh quickly added points to open up a six point lead Donegal were in pole position.
An interesting feature of Sunday’s minor team that five sons of five of Donegal’s 1992 All-Ireland winning heroes - Martin and James McHugh, Charlie Mulgrew, Michael Gallagher and Matt Gallagher all had sons playing with three of them (Ryan McHugh, Mark Gallagher and Eoin McHugh) making up the half-back line.
Darragh Mulgrew, son of Charlie was at midfield while Calum Gallagher, a son of Matt’s, was a second half replacement.
Fermanagh official Niall Cullen was very sharp on the over carrying indeed on more than one occasion he seemed a little over zealous on same. And he also may have to tried to balance the books with calls. But overall he got the greater portion of his calls spot on and had a decent enough game.