Donegal 0-16 Derry 0-15
Blood and iron. Fears that Ulster football had gone continental and devil-may-care evaporated on Sunday over 74 minutes that have saved the reputation of the All-Ireland championship.
For the past few weeks, the big tournament has been reduced to a series of eviscerations: games that were over before they began. This one was still up for grabs deep in injury time when Donegal’s Patrick McBrearty gave Chrissy McKeigue the slip for the first time all afternoon and thumped a murderous left-footed point into the dull northwest afternoon.
Derry had one last attack but couldn’t work enough space to get a shot off and so ended one of the best ever games in this northwest derby. From the beginning, the contest gave lie to the gap between the divisions: here was a team climbing out of Division Three attacking a residual Division One team with fearless imagination and a highly finessed game plan.
Rory Gallagher almost orchestrated a perfect coup against his former team and his county of domicile. Opportunities will replay themselves in the minds of the Derry men over the coming weeks: Benny Heron's palmed open goal that hit the crossbar in the 39th minute: a point blank shot at goal which Shane McGuigan somehow turned wide. Against that: what a performance.
Padraig Cassidy was uncontainable with his direct ball carrying strides along the left wing while Conor Glass and Brendan Rogers set the mood for Derry in the physical exchanges. Some of their shot taking was of the highest calibre and their work rate and organisation blunted the looping, overlapping Donegal attacking style.
There was a sense that Derry might ‘do something’ here but nobody knew until the game began. The first 20 minutes did little to diminish Martin McHugh’s claim that Rory Gallagher has one of the best brains in Gaelic football. From the beginning Gallagher’s voice dominated the overcast afternoon as he moved his players as though on a chess board in regimental commands.
Training ground work shone through the proceedings. The Donegalmen were dragged from their comfort zone straight away. Accustomed to leisurely flinging the ball around as they approached the opposition 50, they now found themselves harried by a mutating Oak Leaf press.
With Michael Murphy not starting - his first absence from a Donegal championship starting 15 since the All-Ireland quarter final of 2011 - Donegal simply refused to try and kick long over the press and looked uncertain in the opening 10 minutes.
When Derry got the ball, they were stunningly direct, with the big-lunged Cassidy and fullback Brendan Rogers sprinting into the last third while Gallagher urged the weak side players - midfielder Conor Glass and forwards Ciaran McFaul and Paul Cassidy to stay wide and stretch the Donegal cover.
They hit the post and should have had a penalty in the sixth minute when Shane McGuigan was scythed by Stephen McMenamin. A series of superb point taking pushed them into a 0-6 to 0-2 lead after 22 minutes. Derry cheers dominated the small crowd of 500 as Donegal posted morale sapping wides.
Two brilliant points by Ciaran McFaul and then another fine strike by Emmet Bradley gave Derry a 0-12 to 0-8 lead after 50 minutes: a perfect position. As the Derry crowd celebrated, Murphy checked in and steadied local nerves with a free.
But it was the introduction of Odhran MacNiallais which turned things. The Gweedore man is such a silky, elusive talent and along with Niall O’Donnell, Caolan McGonigle and Michael Langan led Donegal back to lighted territory. O’Donnell had his best game in a Donegal shirt and struck two exceptional points in the face of heated Derry cover.
Paul Brennan also turned the momentum with a brilliant turnover on a Derry counter attack and he then followed the play upfield to land a brilliant point in the 51st minute when Donegal were listing slightly.
The Tyrone management were among the small crowd in Ballybofey. They will have noted the eagerness with which Derry’s inside forwards, vocally encouraged by Gallagher, turned to ‘go at’ their markers. Yet again Donegal coughed up goal chances here before plugging holes over the final quarter of the game.
Maybe it was during those nerve-wracking last 10 minutes when Donegal’s experience began to show. Derry have not won an Ulster championship since 2015.
A free by Shane McGuigan free brought the afternoon to the brink of extra time before Donegal came forward again, working their ball steadily towards the coming figure of McBrearty, who turned onto his left.
The connection was as sweet at it gets. Gallagher lowered his head even as the football began to spiral: he has seen the Kilcar man enough times to know when the shot is true.
So Donegal roll on with all kinds of question marks dangling over their All-Ireland - and indeed - Ulster credentials. They played in patches here and required flashes of individual brilliance to prevent what would have been a famous win for Derry. A cruel defeat but a bright future.
DONEGAL: 1 S Patton; 18 E McHugh, 3 N McGee, 4 S McMenamin; 5 R McHugh; 8 H McFadden; 6 O McFadden Ferry, 7 EB Gallagher; 9 C McGonigle (0-2); 10 C Thompson, N O'Donnell (0-3), 12 M Langan (0-3); 13 P McBrearty (0-3, 2 frees), 12 J Brennan (0-2), 19 E O'Donnell.
Replacements: 2 B McCole for 4 S McMenamin (40 mins), 20 P Brennan (0-1) for 6 O McFadden-Ferry (44 mins), 14 M Murphy (0-2 frees) for 21 J Brennan (46 mins), 25 O MacNiallais for 19 E O’Donnell (49 mins), 26 O Gallen for 10 C Thompson (69 mins).
DERRY: 1 O Lynch; 2 C McKeigue, 3 B Rogers, 4 P McGrogan; 5 P Cassidy (0-1), 7 C Doherty (0-1), 6 C McKinless (0-1); 8 C Glass (0-1), 9 E Bradley (0-1); 10 E Doherty, 11 N Loughlin (0-1); 12 C McFaul (0-3), 13 B Heron (0-2), 14 S McGuigan (0-4, 2 frees), 15 P Cassidy.
Replacements: 23 O McWilliams for 13 B Heron (57 mins), 24 N Toner for 15 P Cassidy (59 mins), 18 C McCluskey for 10 E Doherty (62 mins), 17 P McNeill for 11 N Loughlin (74 mins).
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).