Donegal escape to battling victory
Donegal 2-12 Fermanagh 0-11
It wasn't quite trickery to rival Houdini, but Donegal left themselves chained into a box at the bottom of River Finn before systematically escaping their binds to comfortably dismiss Fermanagh from the Ulster Championship.
At the stroke of half-time, Fermanagh had weathered a scoring blitz by the home side to leave two points between the sides. Running out of ideas in attack, Aidan Breen floated a hopeful ball across the face of goal that Sean Quigley fetched.
Although he was tripped, referee Maurice Deegan passed on the penalty appeal. However, he couldn't ignore the blatant forearm smash by Neil McGee on Ruairi Corrigan, which earned the Gweedore man a straight red card.
This prompted an extended period of faux outrage and appeals. Donegal men surrounded Deegan. While he made his deliberations, goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley conducted a close-up conversation with Fermanagh penalty-taker Quigley.
The Roslea man's penalty wasn't hit with conviction or placed well. McGinley batted it away and the ref immediately called for half-time. McGee sprinted on to confront Deegan and Donegal manager Rory Gallagher made his point also with the half-time score Donegal 1-6 Fermanagh 0-7.
Pete McGrath was not happy with several elements of what he termed Donegal's "gamesmanship", and said of Deegan's delay between offence and penalty kick, "For him to allow that amount of time to elapse [more than two minutes] and the penalty being taken, I mean that's unacceptable. It's unacceptable."
Gallagher's take on it was quite different. "I thought I heard a whistle for a free out and Neil is adamant that he heard a whistle for a free out and then he kind of shrugged his man off," he said.
Still, when Eamonn McGee dragged Sean Quigley down by the arm - perilously close to the penalty area - and Tomás Corrigan tapped over, it left one point in the game and McGrath's men up a man.
From then on, they froze. Call it a case of not truly believing in themselves, but when Donegal put together a rapid-fire sequence of handpasses through the excellent and probing Frank McGlynn and Martin McElhinney, they opened up a scoring chance for Martin O'Reilly. Instead of kicking his point, he spotted Odhrán MacNiallais on the edge of the square, slipped it to him and MacNiallais palmed to the net - Fermanagh then crumbled.
That score opened a five-point gap. It was the second goal for MacNiallais. In the first half McGlynn played a quick give-and-go with McElhinney to give the stylish MacNiallais a sight on goal - he went high and hard past Fermanagh goalkeeper Chris Snow.
MacNiallais was the star turn here, followed closely by McGlynn, who operated at centre-forward and showed calmness on the ball. Once the second goal went in, it was time to drain the life from the game. Twenty-one minutes were sandwiched between Corrigan free-kicks - Fermanagh's first and second scores of the half.
From that point on, the game grew more predictable. Fermanagh had failed to take advantage of the great position they had put themselves in. For the last 10 minutes of the first half, they pushed up on the Donegal kickouts, prompting McGinley to put two of them over the sideline.
Asked to explain how they re-jigged things at half-time, McGrath commented, "I think there were too many individual battles lost in certain areas of the field in the second half to make the extra man a benefit.
"Too often in the second half we were on the back foot, and they were winning a lot of individual battles, they were showing composure. They were sucking us towards them and popping the ball and that type of thing and the seminal moment of the second half was the Donegal second goal, which gave them all the energy and all the momentum to keep us on the back foot."
Donegal's familiarity with the confines and their own play was writ large on an impressive second half. They fed Fermanagh attackers Tomás Corrigan and Quigley on very strict rations and showed their mean face on a few occasions.
When Quigley had a long-range free in the first-half, Donegal players surrounded him in a tight semi-circle, employing some mind games. As the second half progressed, players went down easily - "feigning injury", McGrath said - leaving little time to fashion a recovery.
O'Reilly followed the goal with a point that required dogged persistence. The marking was getting looser when Paddy McBrearty posted a point and by McElhinney's solitary score, they had demoralised their opponents.
And all this with a Michael Murphy who was operating at around half of his normal capacity and of course, no Karl Lacey.
"We had seven or eight lads who were not there in 2012 and I suppose there is a wee bit of a transition from that point of view," said Gallagher in the post-match briefing.
"We still feel that we have a really good team and we can be a match for anyone."
After an eight-week lay-off going into this game, they now have a mere 13 days to get themselves ready for a grudge match, an Ulster semi-final against Monaghan, a repeat of the last three Ulster finals, in Kingspan Breffni Park on June 25.
"The recovery process starts now. Bodies will be sore, we picked up a few knocks during the game and a lot of wee, small things went against us," added Gallagher.
Scorers - Donegal: O MacNiallais 2-1, P McBrearty 0-3 (1f), M O'Reilly 0-2, E McHugh 0-2, M Murphy 0-1 (f), F McGlynn 0-1, M McElhinney 0-1, C McFadden 0-1 (f). Fermanagh: T Corrigan 0-7 (7f), E Donnelly 0-1, S Quigley 0-1, B Mulrone 0-1, R Jones 0-1.
DONEGAL: MA McGinley 6; P McGrath 7, N McGee 5, E McGee 7; R McHugh 7, F McGlynn 8, A Thompson 6; R Kavanagh 6, H McFadden 6; E McHugh 7, M McElhinney 7, O MacNiallais 9; P McBrearty 7, M Murphy 7, M O'Reilly 7. Subs: L McLoone 5 for Kavanagh (12), C Toye 5 for McLoone (HT), R Kavanagh 5 for McGlynn (53), M McHugh for McElhinney (59), C McFadden for McBrearty (69).
FERMANAGH: C Snow 6; M Jones 6, C Cullen 6, M O'Brien 7; D McCusker 7, J McMahon 6, B Mulrone 7; E Donnelly 7, A Breen 6; P McCusker 6, R Jones 6, R O'Callaghan 7; R Corrigan 5, S Quigley 5, T Corrigan 7. Subs: D Kelly 6 for Cullen (BC, 47), N Cassidy 6 for R Corrigan (47), R Lyons 5 for Breen (59), C Jones 5 for McMahon (59), D Teague for P McCusker (65), C Flaherty for O'Brien (70)
REF - Maurice Deegan (Laois).