In a war of attrition, Donegal just scraped through to their third Ulster final in-a-row with a narrow victory at Kingspan Breffni Park.
The 21,715 patrons were not treated to a great spectacle, but the game was in the balance until the final whistle by Eddie Kinsella. Donegal always had the lead, which never dipped below two points, but they could not shake off a Down side that could easily have been closer, with their forwards shot shy at times, especially Benny Coulter.
In the end it was the scoring power of Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy, who both hit five points, allied to a great work ethic, not least from Mark McHugh, who covered every blade of the pitch and used the ball very well.
With heavy rain before the game, conditions were very difficult. It didn’t help that both teams used massed defences which led to many turnovers on both sides.
Donegal started much the better with four points on the board by the 13 minute mark, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden sharing the scoring, from frees and play.
Down can thank Donal O’Hare for eventually getting on the scoreboard as he found the range from two frees by the 18th minute, one of them courtesy of the ball being moved on for Donegal dissent.
Michael Murphy and an excellent effort from Patrick McBrearty stretched the Donegal lead to 0-6 to 0-2 by the 22nd minute, but they then failed to raise a flag in the final 16 minutes.
Down began to win turnovers and Donal O’Hare (free) and Mark Poland had them back within two with five minutes of the half left.
It also took a magnificent block by Paddy McGrath at the expense of a ‘45’ to deny one Down attack.
Amazingly, there was only one wide recorded in the opening half, Ambrose Rogers off target midway through the half.
Michael Murphy’s quick brain allowed Rory Kavanagh to fire over the first point of the second half iniside a minute but Donal O’Hare cancelled that score after Benny Coulter was fouled.
On four more occasions in the remaining 28 minutes, Donegal went three points clear, only for Down to pull the margin back to two on each occasion. Murphy and McFadden shared those four points and it was the Glenswilly man who had the final point a minute from the end of normal time with a wonderful free kick from 55m. Murphy had convered a similar free earlier only for the referee to bring it forward with the ball in the air, but he still found the range from the shorter distance.
Donal O’Hare (2), Jerome Johnston and Danny Savage were the Down scorers in that period.
In the end Donegal just about deserved the win, but it took a huge effort to get them over the line with the McGees again outstanding while Anthony Thompson, Rory Kavanagh and substitutes Ryan McHugh and Martin O’Reilly also playing their part.
Down will be hugely disapppointed that their forwards did not have their shooting boots on.
Donegal: Paul Durcan; Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Eamon McGee; Declan Walsh, Frank McGlynn, Anthony Thompson; Ryan Bradley, Rory Kavanagh (0-1); David Walsh, Leo McLoone, Mark McHugh; Patrick McBrearty (0-1) Michael Murphy (0-5,4f), Colm McFadden (0-5,2f). Subs., Martin O’Reilly for David Walsh, Martin McElhinney for Bradley, both 33; Ryan McHugh for McGlynn ht; Ross Wherity for McLoone 45; Dermot Molloy for McBrearty 65.
Down: Brendan McVeigh; Daniel McCartan, Brendan McArdle, Keith Quinn; Declan Rooney, Peter Turley, Ryan Boyle; Kalum King, Kevin McKernan; Ambrose Rogers, Mark Poland (0-1), Niall Madine; Conor Laverty, Brendan Coulter, Donal O’Hare (0-6,5f). Subs., Ryan Mallon for Quinn 47; Jerome Johnston (0-1) for Coulter 57; Danny Savage (0-1,f) for Madine 62
Referee: Eddie Kinsella (Laois)