Patient approach pays off as Donegal finally shake off Fermanagh

Late points help set up Ulster semi-final showdown with Tyrone

Donegal’s Ciarán Thompson is challenged by Kane Connor of Fermanagh during the Ulster SFC quarter-final at Brewster Park in Enniskillen. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Fermanagh 0-9 Donegal 0-15

Bodies are everywhere and there’s no room to breathe. It’s cramped and occasionally in-your-face cranky – and that’s just in the press box. Some things about Ulster football never change, and out on the field it must have been worse.

The last point, thank goodness, came from the boot of man-of-the-match Jamie Brennan, finally breaking apart a typically claustrophobic Ulster football quarter-final, clearing the way through for defending champions Donegal. File straight under the anti-classics.

Grimly exciting perhaps, memorably entertaining it was not. Only inside the six minutes of added time did Donegal found some proper scoring space to decide an otherwise tense, nervous headache of a contest. Fermanagh refused to let go but they also failed to open any sort of winning space for themselves.


"We'll take the victory, simple as, because it's always difficult to come out of Brewster Park with a result," said Donegal manager Declan Bonner, next up being the more appetising Ulster semi-final date with Tyrone on Saturday week.

“It probably wasn’t the most pleasant of games to watch, but maybe intriguing, in terms of styles and contrast, but we had to be patient, very, very disciplined, and I felt they did that, to break their blanket down.

“And I thought we were a lot more controlled in the second half, some of our points in the last quarter [were] top class. But there’s not much time to dwell on this, we will need a fair bit of improvement to get over Tyrone.”

That patience paid off with a closing swing of points from Brennan, Paddy McBrearty, Ciarán Thompson, Michael Langan, and team captain Michael Murphy – outscoring Fermanagh six points to one in the last quarter. Most of those points came from distance, because that's where the only space was.

Aidan Breen of Fermanagh holds off Donegal’s Leo McLoone during the Ulster SFC quarter-final at Brewster Park in Enniskillen. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

“Forwards win games, and that’s the bottom line,” added Bonner. “But apart from quality we have some real leaders in the group, that’s vital too.”

All but two of Donegal’s scores came from play, most from distance; two frees from McBrearty. He added three more from play, Brennan hitting four, Murphy two, including a big kahuna early in the second half, with Jason McGee and Leo McCloone also getting in on the scoring act.

Only beyond Ultan Kelm's shot early on, there wasn't a whiff of a goal chance. From the throw-in there was a meltdown of positions: as soon as Donegal won their first possession, Fermanagh dropped all 15 players behind the ball, full back Che Cullen at one stage their man furthest forward. That was their tactic for the game. Rory Gallagher, knowing well the team he previously managed, made no secret of that.

“I thought for the first half we were giving as good as we got,” said Gallagher, “but I’d be disappointed some of our turnovers, which they punished us for. They have players that can kick from distance, and they needed them. I think the way we play, we’d made most teams nervous, and we looked dangerous, but I felt to stretch it, we needed to score a goal.”

It was still on the razor’s edge approaching the hour mark, Donegal up 0-10 to 0-8, at which point Conall Jones missed an easy free in front of goal, dropping it short. Gallagher didn’t deny that was the key turning point, especially with Donegal hitting the next two scores.

“Yeah, we knew we needed to get ahead at that stage,” added Gallagher: there was the suggestion the excellent Paddy McGrath might have got worse than yellow for a tackle on Jones on the 45th minute, but Gallagher deemed the card suitable.

With the breeze to their backs, Fermanagh did find room to hit the first two scores, Kelm cutting through from wing back after five minutes, and Seán Quigley extended that to two points, with a free on 12 minutes.

McBrearty, in his first start of the season since tearing his cruciate in last year’s Ulster final, looked nervy, his first two shots on goal drifting wide, another dropping short. He found his range later on, but it took Donegal 19 minutes before Brennan’s snapshot eventually gave them a score. McBrearty converted his first free a minute later, and Donegal then hit the next two scores, another free from McBrearty, and McCloone finishing off a thrusting run which had Murphy’s magic fingers all over it.

Still what seemed like some Donegal momentum was overturned again when Fermanagh replied with two unanswered points, midfielder Ryan Jones splitting the posts from distance, before Ciarán Corrigan squared it up again on 34 minutes. The best score of that first half was reserved until last, Jason McGee accelerating into space in front of the Fermanagh goal and striking from 35 metres out for the perfect score, Donegal up 0-5 to 0-4 as they went in for the oxygen masks at half-time.

It is the sort of game that will bring Donegal on immeasurably, especially McBrearty, Ryan McHugh not liking the cramped game either. For Fermanagh it brings another journey down the qualifier route, the Ernemen still one of only two counties yet to win a provincial title – Wicklow being the other. Donegal beat them by 12 points in last year’s final. Losing by six here may breathe some hope.

FERMANAGH: J McGrath; J Cassidy, C Cullen, L Cullen; U Kelm (0-2), J McMahon, K Connor; E Donnelly (capt), R Jones (0-1); D Teague; A Breen, C Corrigan (0-2); D McCusker, C Jones (0-2, two frees), S Quigley (0-1, a free).

Subs: B Mulrone (0-1) for Teague (h/t), P McCusker for Quigley (43 mins), T Clarke for Connor (61), R Lyons for Breen (65), Teague for McCusker (68).

DONEGAL: S Patton: P McGrath, N McGee, S McMenamin; R McHugh, D Ó Baoill, E Bán Gallagher; H McFadden, J McGee (0-1); C Thompson (0-1), L McLoone (0-1), J Brennan (0-4); P McBrearty (0-5, two frees), M Murphy (capt)(0-2), M Langan (0-1).

Subs: F McGlynn for Ó Baoill (49 mins), N O'Donnell for McLoone (55), E McHugh for McGrath (61), E Doherty for McHugh (71), P Brennan for Thompson (73).

Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics