Ulster breathes fresh life into football championship

McBrearty’s superb late point helps Donegal squeeze past defiant Derry

Donegal's Michael Murphy blocks a goal attempt from Shane McGuigan of Derry. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Donegal's Michael Murphy blocks a goal attempt from Shane McGuigan of Derry. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The pilgrims came in search of the All-Ireland football championship and located it in Donegal.

Shades of the 1990s on a dull July Sunday.After a series of alarmingly one-sided games throughout the country, the football season was revived by the tangy rivalry in the northwest.

The GAA – and RTÉ – must have thanked their stars even as Patrick McBrearty sent a left-foot winner spiralling into the grubby sky. Seventy-five minutes gone; nerves frayed, Derry tantalisingly close to their biggest win in a decade, Michael Murphy’s late introduction when Donegal were on the brink: it was a game choc-a-bloc with talking points after a 0-16 to 0-15 win for Donegal.

There were many excellent on-field performances for Derry but this game was shaped by Rory Gallagher, the former Donegal manager, who micromanaged his team through with terse instructions as the game deepened into a tense and absorbing contest.

It was a brilliant performance from Derry and the manner of the loss was sickening for them. But as Gallagher stood on the empty field he cast an eye over the Donegal substitutes going through a series of drills on the passing field and his eye fell on a former All-Ireland winner.

“The gulf from Division One to Division Three is massive, but the gulf from us to Division One isn’t that big,” he said.

“We don’t get everything right but I’m not stupid, I know good footballers, it was a matter of us gelling. There’s an awful lot of experience about tactics but team spirit, togetherness, playing for the cause – I see boys doing the warm-down there, I know them inside out.

“Paddy McGrath there, 32, won’t sulk, will get on with it. That’s what we need to do. We need to learn an awful lot. I would be passing on some of the experience I have from Donegal, the way they always put the team first. Even today when it wasn’t going their way they stuck at it and dug it out.”

Real deal

That was true. The cases for and against Donegal as real deal contenders can both be persuasively made. But they carry on. The limited minutes of the talismanic Murphy remains a concern as they prepare for Tyrone next Sunday in Enniskillen. They are developing the iffy habit of digging holes for themselves in order to climb back out.

“We were nine down against Monaghan and came back,” said Declan Bonner.

“The lads showed great character. I don’t want to make a habit of it to be honest! But I think the substitutions probably worked well for us and getting the right man on the ball in terms of Patrick McBrearty.

“I thought we saw the game out . . . Derry had possession for the last two minutes but I thought our defence stood up well and was very disciplined. It was important to put the pressure on and eventually the clock was against Derry. But it was a titanic battle from start to finish and I am just glad we are in the semi-final next weekend.”

Not for the first time, the northern theatre is the saving grace of the football season.

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