Donegal's new style untested in stroll past Derry
TWO down, two to go for Donegal as they continue a bid to make history by retaining their title for the first time.
The favourites tag always hangs nervously on them at home but the only worry about this quarter-final cakewalk in Ballybofey on Saturday was just how badly it prepared them for Tyrone next.
Anyone imagining that this rematch of last year's Ulster final might produce a few fireworks would have been disappointed by a seriously damp -- literally and metaphorically -- squib.
There was a detectable frisson beforehand about whether Michael Murphy would play any part after missing three months with a knee ligament injury.
When the Glenswilly star and Eamonn McGee emerged from the tunnel as the only Donegal players not wearing tracksuit tops, everyone looked even more intrigued so, when their team was eventually announced, Murphy's inclusion drew a cheer.
Jim McGuinness revealed afterwards that the player himself made the decision to start after they'd completed their warm-up on the adjacent pitch.
"He felt he was good to go and wasn't going to be putting himself under pressure," the Donegal boss explained.
Operating deep from centre-forward, the Donegal captain grew into the game as it progressed.
And even though he clearly tired in the final quarter, McGuinness deliberately let him finish it out to get game time into his legs.
Such a liberty was possible due to the abject paucity of Derry's challenge, more of which later, but this was a game which certainly gave some insight into McGuinness' forensic managerial mindset.
Eyebrows were raised that Karl Lacey, not Neil McGee, was dispatched to mark Paddy Bradley, given how the Four Masters star likes to sally upfield.
But McGuinness reasoned that he picks "horses for courses." He felt Lacey's stature and agility were perfectly matched to Bradley, and Lacey rewarded that faith by holding his opponent to one point from play.
McGuinness held his other All Star defender in reserve to do a marking job on Eoin Bradley, correctly predicting his cameo role.
Quite what this Derry team might have done last season if they hadn't lost the younger Bradley brother to that cruciate injury before the Ulster final, we will never know.
The Glenullin man finally made his long-awaited comeback after 53 minutes on Saturday but it was probably too early for him and too late for Derry, who already trailed by 10 and were thoroughly over-run and outclassed.
Derry's only victory over Donegal this past decade came in 2008 and though they scored a point more than they managed last year's Ulster final, this rout confirmed their problems.
Retirements haven't helped -- Enda Muldoon's aerial wisdom or Kevin McCloy's bruising defensive presence would have helped here -- but Derry must now find new heroes and, Chris McKaigue apart, they have few contenders.
Tactically, they tried to ape their opponents by dropping deep and playing a two-man full-forward line of Conleith Gilligan and Emmet McGuckian.
But they had neither the pace nor precision to match Donegal's speedy counter-attacking game, and seeing Paddy Bradley and Mark Lynch forced to forage so far from goal at times spoke volumes about their inability to win primary possession.
Crestfallen manager John Brennan said: "I'm trying to coach players, and have coached them these last few weeks, that style of play, but if we're not able to play up to that standard, we have to accept we're not good enough at the moment.
"We were over-run by their half-backs, midfielders and half-forwards," he conceded.
"We worked hard but there's a serious gap between ourselves and Donegal at the moment."
Exactly as they'd done to Cavan, Donegal held Derry to just 0-4 (3f) by half-time, by which time they'd racked up 1-6, the goal finished by Leo McLoone on 31 minutes after Colm McFadden had ghosted in along the end-line.
Their second goal, nine minutes after the restart, epitomised how good they can be when their mass defence immediately converts to a zippy counter-attack.
Derry midfielder Michael Friel coughed up a kick-out after being engulfed by Donegal's worker bees in midfield and, from the turnover, Patrick McBrearty, who only completed his Leaving Cert 24 hours earlier, unselfishly offloaded to an unmarked McFadden.
Paul Durcan parried Derry's only goal chance, from Lynch, in the dying stages and, as usual, Donegal's strength was the sum of their parts, with nine separate scorers.
Eamonn McGee did a big job on Lynch, Ryan Bradley deputised impressively for Rory Kavanagh in midfield, and Neil Gallagher, Frank McGlynn, David Walsh and sweeper Mark McHugh all did well.
They reigning champions are just one game away from another Ulster final now but whether they can maintain this season's more attacking style against Tyrone will be the ultimate litmus test.
SCORERS -- Donegal: C McFadden 1-2 (2f), L McLoone 1-0, M Murphy 0-3 (3f), P McBrearty, D Walsh 0-2 each, F McGlynn, A Thompson, N Gallagher, R Bradley 0-1 each; Derry: P Bradley 0-6 (5f), S L McGoldrick, M Lynch 0-1 each, E Bradley 0-1 ('45').
DONEGAL -- P Durcan 8; P McGrath 8, N McGee 8, K Lacey 7; A Thompson 7, E McGee 8, F McGlynn 8; R Bradley 7, N Gallagher 8; L McLoone 8, M McHugh 8, D Walsh 8; C McFadden 7, M Murphy (Capt) 7, P McBrearty 7. Subs: S Griffin for McLoone (66), D Molloy for McFadden (66), C Toye for Bradley (68), M McElhinney for Walsh (68), A Hanlon for McBreary (69).
DERRY -- B Gillis 6; E Scullion 6, C McKaigue 7, B McGoldrick 7; G O'Kane 6, M Craig 5, SL McGoldrick 7; J Diver 5, M Friel 6; J McCamley 5, M Lynch 6, E Lynn 6; C Gilligan 5, Paddy Bradley (Capt) 7, E McGuckian 5. Subs: M Donaghy 6 for McCamley (42), Patsy Bradley 7 for Lynn (45), Eoin Bradley 6 for Gilligan (53), C Kielt 6 for O'Kane (55), Emmet Bradley 6 for Diver (62).
REF -- Marty Duffy (Sligo).