Donegal dethrone Monaghan after epic struggle
Donegal 0-17 Monaghan 2-10
As the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo, this was a damn close-run thing. In the fifth minute of injury time, Monaghan opted to run the ball through the phases after goalkeeper Rory Beggan, who had earlier missed two long-range kicks, opted not to take a shot at goal from a 48m free.
Monaghan worked the ball down the right flank before wing-back Kieran Duffy took on responsibility for sending this Ulster semi-final replay into extra time. But his effort hung in the air before eventually dropping into the grateful arms of Donegal goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley.
But this contest should never have gone down to the wire. Caught at the death in the drawn game, Donegal absorbed the lessons of that encounter far better than the defending title-holders.
In simple terms, Donegal stopped giving away cheap, scorable frees. Nine of Monaghan's 14 points in the drawn encounter came from frees - in the replay, Conor McManus converted just one free.
Monaghan might still have survived had their forward division not malfunctioned yet again. The fact that their attempt at a late equaliser landed in the arms of the Donegal goalkeeper was consistent - it was the sixth time it happened.
Their overall conversion rate was 48pc compared to 68pc for Donegal and, yet again, they were overly dependent on Conor McManus for the bulk of his scores. One statistic sums up their difficulties - by half-time seven different Donegal players had registered scores compared to two for Monaghan.
So how did Monaghan stay in the match? As has been their wont in the last couple of seasons, the Donegal defence coughed up goal chances.
They had built up a 0-5 to 0-1 lead in the first 17 minutes when they switched off as McManus shaped up to take a routine 25m free. Instead of knocking the ball over the bar, he popped a quick pass to the unmarked Shane Carey, who slipped the ball into the corner of the net.
Worse was to follow for Donegal, six minutes before the break, when the referee not alone judged that Anthony Tompkins had fouled Ryan Wylie inside the parallelogram, but that the offence merited a black card. McManus dispatched the penalty and, despite being totally outplayed up until that point, Monaghan were level.
But just as they had done after conceding the first goal, the Donegal response was instant - and they rounded off the half with a brace of points to lead 0-10 to 2-2 at the break. Monaghan became more competitive after the break, though it wasn't until the introduction of substitutes Conor Boyle and Jack McCarron - who between them scored three points from play - that they got some traction up front. They were unlucky not to snatch a third goal in the 58th minute when a delicate chip from another substitute, Conor McCarthy, rebounded off the crossbar.
But when Man of the Match Martin O'Reilly scored his third point in the 64th minute to give his side a three-point lead, Rory Gallagher's side looked assured of victory until Donegal's inability to close out games manifested itself in a dramatic finish.
By then the two sides were reduced to 14 men. Rory Kavanagh was sent off after picking up a second yellow while Karl O'Connell was black carded for a rugby-style tackle on Ryan McHugh. Monaghan couldn't replace him, as they had already used their six substitutes.
Michael Murphy's point from that free proved the winning score, because even though Monaghan outscored their opponents 0-3 to 0-1 in a glorious finish, their comeback fell short and they couldn't complain - as Malachy O'Rourke acknowledged.
"We just never got going in the first half," he said. "Donegal were playing much better, they were using the ball better, they were coming at us at angles and we weren't coping with it that well. Obviously, the two goals kept us in the game. In the second half we were a lot better, but Donegal always had that bit of a lead and we weren't able to close that gap."
Even though Michael Murphy - who kicked more wides than any other player - was held scoreless from play, and Ryan McHugh was shackled more efficiently by Ryan McAnespie than in the drawn game, colleagues Rory Kavanagh, Martin McElhinny and, in particular, O'Reilly stepped up to the plate.
In contrast, while Conor McManus was more effective in general play than in the drawn game, the failure of the Hughes and Wylie brothers to make their anticipated impact ultimately cost them the game.
So Donegal march on to a historic sixth Ulster final appearance in a row and, according to captain Murphy, they'll continue to ignore the critics.
"Quite honestly, we have been written off since we started," he said. "People can snigger and laugh all they want, but they have been doing it on a weekly basis. It hasn't really taken a bit out of the team - nor will it. We'll just try do our county proud."
Scorers - Donegal - M Murphy 0-5 (4fs, 1'45); P McBrearty 0-4 (3fs); M O'Reilly 0-3; F McGlynn, R Kavanagh, A Thompson, M McElhinney,M McHugh 0-1 each. Monaghan - C McManus 1-4 (1 gl pen, 1f, 1 45); S Carey 1-1; J McCarron 0-2; C Walshe, O Duffy, C Boyle 0-1 each.
Donegal - MA McGinley 6; P McGrath 7, C Gillespie 7, E McGee 6; E McHugh 7, R McHugh 7, F McGlynn 7; R Kavanagh 8, O MacNiallais 7; A Thompson 6, M McElhinney 7, K Lacey 7; P McBrearty 8, M Murphy 8, M O'Reilly 9. Subs: M McHugh 8 for A Thompson (BC 33); C Toye 5 for M McElhinney (52); M McElhinney for O MacNiallais (69), E Gallagher for M O'Reilly (74)
Monaghan - R Beggan 6; C Walshe 7, D Wylie 5, R Wylie 6; K Duffy 7, V Corey 8, F Kelly 6; K Hughes 5, K O'Connell 7; O Duffy 7, R McAnespie 7, S Carey 7; D McKenna 5, D Hughes 5, C McManus 8. Subs: N McAdam 5 for D Wylie (ht); D Malone 5 for D McKenna (ht); C Boyle 7 for R Wylie (46); C McCarthy 6 for S Carey (49); J McCarron 8 for K Hughes (52); D Mone 6 for F Kelly (63)
Ref - M Deegan (Laois)