Donegal end 19-year wait for Ulster title
DONEGAL 1-11 DERRY 0-8
ULSTER SFC FINAL
Before they look forward, perhaps Donegal should first spare a moment to look back to the last Saturday of June 2010 and the bedraggled, demoralised bunch they were making their way out of Crossmaglen after suffering a heavy qualifier defeat by Armagh.
Ulster champions in a little less than 13 months? On that afternoon, you just couldn't have countenanced it. But within a month, it had become obvious that only one man would be taking Donegal into the future. A man with a clear and definite plan.
Jim McGuinness got his timing right to perfection as a player, joining the Donegal squad as an enthusiastic 18- year-old to win an Ulster and then All-Ireland title in 1992. Now, in his first season as manager, he has delivered an Ulster title, 19 years on from that last success. Lucky? Or just exceptional at what he does?
There wasn't a Donegal player afterwards who didn't name-check McGuinness and the influence has had in transforming Donegal from the wreckage of Crossmaglen to the glory of Clones yesterday afternoon.
Donegal have come this year with McGuinness' plan and plenty of willing bodies to execute it. It hasn't been pretty, it has drawn plenty of criticism, but who cares when it's been 19 years since your last provincial title?
Not one of the thousands bedecked in green and gold who defied the hopeless requests to stay off the field, barged through the cover of stewards and charged to the podium area where captain Michael Murphy had the Anglo Celt Cup in his sights.
They've had the misery of five Ulster final defeats since 1992 to contend with and many years of underachievement with decent teams.
And it shouldn't be tempered by the view of that this has been a poor quality Ulster championship, nothing near the standard set throughout so much of the last decade.
Too often Donegal teams have been labelled naive and not strong enough to contend with the demands of the modern game. McGuinness and his trusted sidekick Rory Gallagher have seen to that.They've brought modern progressive methods to a county that has been too laissez faire about those menial little things in the past.
If this was the ultimate contrast between those methods and the more old-school approach of John Brennan then there was only one outcome. From an early stage, it was evident that Donegal more than had the measure of their opponents.
The scoreboard didn't always reflect that sentiment, but the pressure Derry players were consistently under when shooting was enough to encourage predictions that this would be a low-scoring affair in which Donegal would eventually prevail.
Regularly, Derry would find themselves trying to pierce an 11-man defensive screen during that first half with only Paddy McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden staying out of the zone that they sought to protect.
Mark McHugh operated as permanent sweeper, but at the first sign of a Derry man in possession pushing forward, all the half-forwards and midfielders were back to provide the human shield.
Predictably, the Derry manager John Brennan chose to push Sean Leo McGoldrick up on to McHugh, but the result was congestion and far too much space at the other end for Murphy and McFadden to thrive in.
It was left to Derry centre-back Charlie Kielt to find the gaps with two long-range points keeping them in touch early on.
But without the sorcery of Eoin Bradley there wasn't the same cut or improvisation about the Derry attack that had been so evident against Armagh. Collectively, Donegal defended with discipline; individually Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson, who picked off two early points himself, stood out.
Eventually Derry got some control around the middle through Joe Diver and that gave them territory. For their fifth point, from substitute Martin Donaghy, the point of attack was switched quickly from wing to wing and that was the only time Donegal showed chinks in the armoury.
But progress was slow and at 0-5 each at the break, it was still Donegal's advantage. The turning point came early in the second half when Michael Hegarty, such an influence throughout, prodded a speculative delivery towards Murphy, who got a touch to it but was then brought to the ground by a needless challenge from Derry goalkeeper Danny Devlin.
The ball was drifting wide off Murphy, but, much to the chagrin of Brennan, referee Maurice Deegan awarded a penalty. Two and a half minutes later Murphy eventually got to take it and blasted it past Devlin.
It got fractious for a few minutes after that. McBrearty, still only a minor, was on the deck and with Derry players trying to lift him from his prostrate position, implying that he was making a meal of an incident with defender Dermot McBride, a significant altercation developed.
But it was Donegal who took the momentum from the incident and McFadden and Hegarty points, both set up by Murphy, pushed them five points clear. In such a tight match and with such a defensive orientation being applied so effectively, that was tantamount to game over.
James Kielt led the Derry pursuit with some accurate long-range kicking, but Donegal were happy to defend and commit the fouls in areas where they didn't really matter.
The gap closed to three on 47 minutes, 1-7 to 0-7, but the next three scores were Donegal's and when Hegarty squeezed over from a tight angle the relief in the green and gold majority among the 28,364 crowd was palpable.
McGuinness was adamant afterwards that history was an irrelevance to what they were trying to achieve.
"We weren't talking about the Ulster final or the significance of the 19 years, we were talking about x, y and z that had to happen if we were going to win the game. That was the approach. Performance goals are a lot more powerful than telling somebody they haven't achieved in 19 years," he said.
For once, many of these the Donegal players could disembark from a bus in Donegal town last night and feel free to have a drink without prying eyes giving them a bad name. They've earned it.
Scorers -- Donegal: M Murphy 1-2 (1-0 pen), C McFadden 0-4 (2f), A Thompson, M Hegarty 0-2 each, R Bradley 0-1. Derry: J Kielt 0-4 (2f), C Kielt 0-2, C Gilligan (1f), M Donaghy 0-1 each.
Donegal -- P Durcan 7; P McGrath 6, N McGee 6, F McGlynn 6; A Thompson 8, K Lacey 8, K Cassidy 7; R Kavanagh 5, N Gallagher 7; R Bradley 7, M Hegarty 8, M McHugh 7; P McBrearty 6, M Murphy 8, C McFadden 8. Subs: M McElhinney 6 for Gallagher (32), D Molloy 6 for McBrearty (52), D Walsh 6 for Bradley (59).
Derry -- D Devlin 6; D McBride 6, C Mullan 5, K McGuckin 6; SL McGoldrick 7, C Kielt 8, B McGoldrick 7; J Diver 7, M Friel 6; J Kielt 7, E Muldoon 6, M Bateson 5; M Lynch 5, C O'Boyle 5, C Gilligan 5. Subs: M Donaghy 6 for Bateson (27), K McCloy 5 for Mullan (46), E McGuckian 6 for Gilligan (58), P J McCloskey for Muldoon (62), G O'Kane for B McGoldrick (62).
Ref -- M Deegan (Laois).