Goals from Odhran MacNiallais and Caolan Ward paved the way for Donegal to reach an Ulster U-21 final against Cavan for the third time in four years after a dramatic night at Healy Park.
The side managed by Maxi Curran came out with all guns blazing in the second half to overcome a lively Derry team in Omagh’s but with Patrick McBrearty kicking five points Donegal were deserved of their final berth on a night of thin margins.
It was a close run thing, though, as Ryan Bell, who had scored six frees beforehand, clammed a shot against the Donegal crossbar in the last minute with Derry three points down.
Derry dominated for larger chunks of the first half but had to be content with parity at the interval, 0-8 to Donegal’s 1-5, after MacNiallais grabbed a Donegal goal to quell the tide on nine minutes.
McBrearty’s pop at goal from the shadow of the stand tailed away but while Derry goalkeeper Christopher Bradley started to come and then stopped, MacNiallias had eyes for only the ball and punched home with both hands from 10 metres out.
That made the score 1-1 to 0-2 following a McBrearty point that was sandwiched between Aaron Devlin and Fintan Bell scores for Derry. After the goal, though, Donegal played their best football for a spell and looked like tearing Derry asunder as a succession of defenders found bother with McBrearty.
The Derry goal lived a charmed life moments after their concession when Bradley saved firstly from McBrearty, corner-back Gareth McKinless then cleared a Willie Gillespie shot off the line before Conor Gibbons stabbed over the crossbar. McBrearty and St Eunan’s forward Gibbons fired over quick scores and Donegal momentarily looked comfortable, 1-4 to 0-3 in front on 18 minutes.
Derry, however, grew back into the game and their directness began to cause Donegal problems at the back. They spun off four points in succession, a Devlin effort on the turn before three plump frees from Bell turned Derry’s four-point arrears into a one-point lead. McBrearty levelled with a late first half score to leave it 1-5 to 0-8 at half-time.
Although the temperature was reasonably homely, the Healy Park pitch after a continuous dry spell was as dusty as something you’d find in Arizona and the sturdy playing surface made things awkward for both teams.
A flowing Donegal move brought a second goal on 32 minutes and once more, McBrearty was the architect. The Kilcar forward broke into a channel of opportunity and Ward had roamed from full-back to slam home.
Again, like after the first goal, it was the highpoint of a period of Donegal dominance when they cashed most of their chips in. McBrearty, McHugh, Leon Kelly and Martin O’Reilly all scored and Donegal were 2-8 to 0-10 up. However, with Bell popping over frees Derry were dangerous. Conor Kearns, Spiers and Ciaran McFaul all scored in a nail-biting finish. Bell’s shot rammed the crossbar in the final minute in a stage of intense Derry pressure. Donegal survived by the skin of their teeth.
They will play Cavan in the final on Wednesday night of next week, most probably in Brewster Park, Enniskillen.
Donegal scorers: Patrick McBrearty (0-5, 2f), Caolan Ward and Odhrán MacNiallais (1-0 each), Conor Gibbons (0-2), Eoin McHugh, Leon Kelly, Martin O’Reilly, Darach O’Connor (0-1 each).
Derry scorers: Ryan Bell (0-6, 6f), Aaron Devlin (0-3), Christopher Spiers (0-2), Fintan Bell, Kieran Conway, Ciaran McFaul (0-1 each), Conor Kearns (0-1, 1f).
Donegal: Peter Boyle; Kevin McFadden, Caolan Ward, Pauric Carr; Eoin McHugh, Martin O’Reilly, Eoin McHugh; Leon Kelly, Ciaran Cannon; Luke Keaney, Patrick McBrearty, Gavin Gallagher; William Gillespie, Odhrán MacNiallais, Conor Gibbons. Subs: Darach O’Connor for Gillespie (37), Conor Parke for Cannon (43), Christopher Barrett for Carr (53)
Derry: Christopher Bradley; Gareth McKinless, Peter Quinn, Declan Brow; Karl McTeague, Conor McAtamney, Joe Morgan; Kieran Conway, Ryan Dougan; Nathan Rocks, Ryan Bell, Ciaran McFaul; Fintan Bell, Aaron Devlin, Christopher Spiers. Conor Kearns for Morgan (21), Martin McCloskey for Brown (35), Shea McGuigan for F Bell (47), Roddy O’Kane for Dougan and Rocks (57)
Referee: Martin McNally (Monaghan).