A spirited second half performance from Donegal wasn’t enough to stop Cavan winning a third successive Cadbury’s Ulster U-21 championship at Brewster Park last night.
The Breffni County hadn’t lost in the province since Jim McGuinness and Michael Murphy’s variety of the Donegal U-21’s triumphed in the final at the same venue back in 2010. Since then, Cavan heave defeated all comers, every single county in Ulster bar Antrim, the only team who they’ve not been paired with.
Donegal had upset Tyrone in the Ulster quarter-final 0-15 to 1-6 in impressive style but there were a few cracks in performance at the 2-11 to 0-15 win over Derry. Last night, there was an obvious reliance on Patrick McBrearty, who scored five points, on a trying week for the 19-year-old.
Cavan’s recent record in the competition made them the pre-match favourites and they opened in spectacular fashion. Within 10 minutes they were 0-4 to 0-1 up with Chris Conroy, Enda O’Reilly, Gerry Smith and Paul O’Connor all on the scoresheet before Donegal got going.
Darach O’Connor posted the first score for the team managed by Maxi Curran and although they were certainly getting dominated in most areas of the field, they did create two goal chances that might’ve dug them out of the hole.
From his first real possession of the match, McBrearty ran right at the heart of the Cavan defence and worked himself into a position to shooot, which did but just wide of Conor Gilsenan’s post when popping at goal. Then, from a pass by Odhran MacNiallais, Willie Gillespie turned Killian Clarke but he too failed to get the significant purchase on the shot and it ended up in the same place as McBrearty’s.
Ryan McHugh came through an early evening fitness test on a torn calf muscle and was named to start but struggled to impose himself on the match and was replaced on 18 minutes by Ciaran Cannon.
Those goal chances would’ve given the scoreboard something of a false economy as Cavan were thoroughly dominant in the first half. O’Reilly and Conroy both doubled their personal accounts, while Paul O’Connor opened his, before McBrearty’s first of the night, a fine point on the turn.
However, with the avalanche continuing towards the Donegal goal, Smith made it 0-7 to 0-2 for Cavan at the break, a reasonably accurate summary of how the match had unfolded to that point. Donegal were slow in their build-up for the most part and that allowed Cavan’s defence to get into position.
Donegal had to go for broke in the second half and again, there was a preoccupation for goals. In the opening seconds MacNiallais, showing the necessary collective directness, broke through and opted to take the shot early but once more Gilsenan, the Cavan goalkeeper, was untested as the ball trickled wide.
O’Reilly opened the second half scoring, though, from a free at the other end before Gillespie handed Donegal got the goal they had craved for so long. McBrearty might well have been shooting for a point from long range but his effort was fizzling out on the night air. Gillespie was well stationed, right on the edge of the square, and slapped the dropping ball over Gilsenan on 37 minutes to make the score 0-8 to 1-2.
But Cavan, well supported by their excitable fans, picked off the next two scores – a free from Jack Brady before the point of the night, a Conroy boomer from the right flank. A couple of McBrearty points, either side of another Brady free, meant it was 0-11 to 1-4 on 47 minutes.
However, with McBrearty then adding another two points from play there was an edginess about Cavan for the first time in the match. Donegal, with six minutes left, got back to within touching distance, 0-11 to 1-6 down, only for Brady’s free and the insurance point from Paul Graham to seal the win and Cavan’s three-in-a-row.
Donegal scorers: Patrick McBrearty (0-5, 1f), Willie Gilllespie (1-0), Darach O’Connor (0-1)
Cavan scorers: Chris Conroy (0-3), Enda O’Reilly (0-3, 2f), Jack Brady (0-3, 3f), Gerry Smith (0-2), Paul O’Connor and Paul Graham (0-1)
Donegal: Peter Boyle; Kevin McFadden, Pauric Carr, Caolan Ward; Ryan McHugh, Martin O’Reilly, Eoin McHugh; Luke Keaney, Leon Kelly; Odhran MacNiallais, Gavin Gallagher, Conor Gibbons; Darach O’Connor, Patrick McBrearty, William Gillespie. Sub: Ciaran Cannon for R McHugh (18), Conor Parke for Kelly (36), Aidy O’Gara for E McHugh (42).
Cavan: Conor Gilsenan; Jason McLoughlin, Killian Clarke, Ciaran Brady; Daragh McVitty, Daragh Sexton, Feargal Flanagan; Brian Sankey, Michael Argue; Gerry Smith, Chris Conroy, Turloch Mooney; Enda O’Reilly, Paul O’Connor, Jack Brady. Subs: Conor Madden for Conroy (52), Paul Graham for Mooney (56), Joe Dillon for O’Connor (59).
Referee: Ciaran Branagan (Down).