Donegal rearguard proves the difference

Defensive unit shows range and accuracy to finish match with solid 1-3 from play

Donegal 1-11 Derry 0-11 They haven't gone away, you know.

Donegal shook off the final vestiges of last summer's weariness and muted a loudening chorus that their day was done with an ominously controlled eviction of Derry in front of a stunned local crowd.

The immediate story of the game was the seven minute period of physical power and football magic invoked by Michael Murphy but of larger significance was the sight of Donegal's rearguard engine firing again with something of the old menace. The bare statistics of the match make for fascinating reading: Donegal's shimmering full forward line scored just 0-2 from play and their half-forward unit did not register a point. But the starting half-back line finished the day with 1-3 from play, albeit 1-1 of that coming when Leo McLoone was switched to centre half forward.

Derry showed no repercussions of the heavy league final defeat against Dublin and landed some wonderful scores in the first half, with Niall Holly and Emmet Bradley lighting up what was a grey afternoon in the city with fabulous points from play. But the beauty of those scores also revealed their main problem over the afternoon. Nothing came easy. All six first half wides were kicked under ferocious pressure. Mark Lynch, who wove spells all through the spring campaign, was not given room to breathe by Karl Lacey and slowly but surely, the Donegal defence began to overwhelm the home team. Derry came up against the team who held Ulster football in an iron grip for two seasons and came up short.

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From the outset, ideas and switches sparked from both managerial squads. Traditional positions meant nothing here, apart from the respective goalkeepers. Donegal were forced to withdraw both starting midfielders minutes before throw in. Big Neil Gallagher had failed to shake off the effects of a twisted ankle and because of that, Donegal elected to hold Martin McElhinney in reserve. With Rory Kavanagh unavailable because of a red card suspension from the league final, it was a daring strategy by Jim McGuinness.

And it worked, perfectly. The classy Christy Toye put in a huge shift for half an hour and was then retired at half time. Michael Murphy covered and grafted during that period and converted a late free to leave his team trailing by 0-4 to 0-6 at half time. Donegal came out reconfigured: Murphy on the edge of the square, Leo McLoone at centre half forward and McElhinney at midfield. In seven minutes, they fired 1-3 which silenced not just the locals in the crowd of 15,883 in Celtic Park but, it seemed, all of Derry city. Anthony Thompson, who marginally eclipsed Karl Lacey as the most influential player on the field, started the spree, ghosting into a clever position and chipping a score. A minute later, Ryan McHugh grabbed possession from the kick out and Murphy combined with the free-running Frank McGlynn who played Leo McLoone. The Glenties man lobbed his goal coolly. Murphy added two glorious points and suddenly. Donegal looked uncontainable. McBrearty, then, came racing through to fire his only score from play; over the course of the match, he might have added 2-2.

That period illuminated Donegal at their slick and rapacious best. When Derry came to their senses, their immediate world had changed. The scoreboard read 1-9 to 0-6 and the task of trying to find a way through the posse of yellow shirts following the ball was forbidding. They had some big performances here, with Patsy Bradley a powerful figure at midfield and at the forefront of the uncompromising hits exchanged by both sides. His team mate Fergal Doherty was also shaping up to have a massive game until he had to leave the field after a heavy tackle on 16 minutes. Gareth McKinless and Gerard O’Kane tried to attack Donegal along the fringes and Benny Heron kicked two points upon his introduction. Derry chipped away and as the visitors endured another dry spell in possession, they chipped away to reduce the gap to 0-10 to 1-10 with eight minutes to go. But against Donegal in this form, a goal is not easily cobbled together. With the McGee boys setting the tone at fullback, the Donegal defensive unit let precious little through and when Derry did manage to free Emmet Lynch with a looping handpass, David Walsh scampered back to take it from his fingertips.

With time ebbing, Donegal relaxed into their slow-fast game, killing the clock and infuriating Derry. James Kielt must have felt hard done by to see both yellow and black cards flashed at him over seventy minutes when several tackles on both sides were on the border line of legality.

But this was an absorbing match from the outset. If Derry had managed to land a few more of the first half chances, then perhaps the Donegal men might have been looser in their formation as they chased the game. But trailing by just 0-2, they came roaring to life with a frightening exhibition by Murphy while all around him the key men of Donegal’s All-Ireland winning season began to move with the familiar smoothness and menace. They could live with a day when Colm McFadden couldn’t tap into his game and when McBrearty felt like the wrong man in the right place. This was a significant win. If Donegal were left smarting at the fairly widespread obituaries that followed their league final defeat, they kept that in check. Afterwards, they said the stuff they said in other years. People can say what they want. They can’t control that. It is just one game at a time. This marks their thirteenth victory in fourteen Ulster championships under McGuinness. Whether they can reclaim the soaring heights of 2012 is for another day. Here, it was just back to business.

DONEGAL: 1 P Durcan, 2 E McGee, 3 N McGee, 11 R McHugh; 19 P McGrath, 6 L McLoone (1-1), 4 K Lacey (0-1), 7 A Thompson (0-1); 10 C Toye (0-1), 12 O MacNiallais; 5 F McGlynn,23 D O'Connor (0-1) , 14 M Murphy (0-5 3 frees, sideline) ; 13 P McBearty, 15 C McFadden. Substitutes: M McElhinney (0-1), for C Toye ( half-time), N Gallagher for D O'Connor (43 mins), D Walsh for O MacNiallais (58 mins), L Keaney for P McBearty (64 mins), D Molloy for C McFadden ( 69 mins).

DERRY: 1 T Mallon; 2 D McBride, 4 C McKaigue, 3 G McKinless; 5 K Johnson, 7 G O'Kane, 11 SL McGoldrick; 8 F Doherty, 9 P Bradley; 10 C McFall (0-1), 6 M Lynch (0-4, 3 frees), 24 E Bradley (0-3, 2 frees); 12 E Lynn, 14 E McGuckin, 15 C O'Boyle. Substitutes: N Holly (0-1) for F Doherty (16 mins inj.), R Bell for C O'Boyle (42 mins), B Heron (0-2, 1 50) for N Holly (47 mins), O Duffy for K Johnson (58 mins), J Kielt for E McGuckin (61 min), C McGoldrick for E Bradley (68 mins).