DONEGAL may have won this fight -- literally at times -- but they left Kingspan Breffni Park yesterday wondering if a red card shown to Michael Murphy will cost them the war.
They insist their captain shouldn't have been dismissed after 16 minutes for an off-the-ball incident with Patrick Carroll that, unless over-turned, will rule him out of their Ulster semi-final clash with Tyrone.
Manager Jim McGuinness jumped to Murphy's defence and said Donegal will be appealing the red card.
"It definitely wasn't a strike," he insisted. "Michael says he went to try and shoulder him. He definitely didn't raise his hand and strike, he assured us of that at half-time.
"He's a model player on and off the field and hopefully there won't be an issue and we'll have him back for the next day."
Cavan argued that they were unlucky to have had midfielder Ray Cullivan sent off after just eight minutes, after he left his boot up contesting a high ball.
Referee Marty Duffy was unequivocal in his response but Cavan co-manager Terry Hyland felt red was harsh.
"I thought it was a yellow card at best. In fairness he had his back to me but he was catching the ball and was up in the air, so I don't know if that can be deemed as deliberate," he said.
Eight minutes later Murphy was also gone for an early shower in an ugly opening 20 minutes. In dreadfully wet conditions this wasn't quite the 'puke football' that Donegal had indulged in against Antrim, but there was certainly far too much bile in those early stages -- probably partly due to the recent U-21 history between these sides.
But then came a bit of class to brighten the show when Mark McHugh's well-placed line-ball found Paddy McBrearty (17) and he shook off his man and tucked away a 20th-minute goal.
Donegal's decision to give the fifth-year schoolboy his first Ulster start -- he was named as a late replacement for 31-year-old clubmate Michael Hegarty -- caused a stir before throw-in. And after trying a little too hard at times, he settled into his rhythm in the second half and did not disappoint, finishing with 1-3.
His goal proved pivotal and, thankfully, seemed to make both sides focus on playing football, which quickly paid dividends for Donegal.
With Murphy dismissed, Colm McFadden, who is in the form of his life in a team managed by his brother-in-law, assumed leadership, as well as the free-taking duties and inspired Donegal to a 1-6 to 0-3 half-time lead.
Despite scoring first and being level after 19 minutes, Cavan failed to score from play in that first half. Losing Cullivan rattled them and with 14 men and their half-backs playing particularly defensively, there was lots of space between them and their two-man full-forward line that Donegal easily contained.
"Losing Ray unsettled us because we had a containment plan set out for the first half," Hyland admitted. "We felt if we could keep it close at half-time then we could really go for it and that blew that plan wide open."
But the young local side, featuring eight debutants and many of this year's U-21 All-Ireland finalists, were often the instigators of their own downfall.
They turned over far too much possession and some of them have the terrible habit of toe-tapping the ball the minute they receive it instead of keeping it moving -- especially against a team like Donegal who devoured them. Half-time gave managers Val Andrews and Hyland a chance to reorganise and, with the big wind-advantage Cavan threw midfielder David Givney up to full-forward and opted for route one.
They also brought in experience in Garrett 'Nesty' Smith and Michael Brennan and with Niall Murray making good runs from half-back, they started to score from play. But when McFadden put Rory Kavanagh through on goal nine minutes after the restart it was 'Goodnight Irene'.
A fabulously angled run and point from McBrearty five minutes later gave Donegal an 11-point lead and they soon started running their bench.
Their next point was scored by Leo McLoone, just off the bench and making a a remarkably quick recovery from a broken ankle.
Cavan got a consolation penalty in injury-time -- Paul Durcan saved Seanie Johnston's initial strike only for Michael Brennan to score the rebound and take the bare look off the scoreline.
Compared to the Antrim game, Donegal's set-up was much more attacking, but few of their starting attack outside McBrearty and McFadden scored and Dermot Molloy put himself into contention for the next day with 0-2 off the bench.
Scorers -- Donegal: P McBrearty 1-3 (1f), C McFadden 0-5 (2f), R Kavanagh 1-0, D Molloy 0-2, K Cassidy, K Rafferty, L McLoone and M Murphy 0-1(f) each. Cavan: M Brennan 1-1, N McDermott 0-4 (3f), G McKiernan, F Flanagan and S Johnston 0-1 (f) each.
Donegal -- P Durcan 8; K Lacey 8, N McGee 8, P McGrath 7; K Cassidy 7, A Thompson 7, M Boyle 6; R Kavanagh 7, K Rafferty 8; M McElhinney 5, P McBrearty 8, R Bradley 5; M McHugh 6, M Murphy (capt) 5, C McFadden 9. Subs: M Hegarty 7 for McElhinney (29), L McLoone 7 for Cassidy (53), D Molloy 8 for Bradley (56), N Gallagher 6 for Rafferty (59), D Walsh for McHugh (66).
Cavan -- J Reilly 7; D Sheridan 6, P Carroll 6 , D O'Dowd 5; N Murray 7, J McCutcheon 6, D Reilly 6; R Cullivan 5, D Givney 8; G McKiernan 7, M Lyng 5, F Flanagan 7; N McDermott 7, E Keating 6, S Johnston 5. Subs: G Smith 7 for Lyng (45), M McKeever 6 for D Reilly (49), T Corr 6 for Sheridan (51), C Mackey 7 for Murray (57), M Brennan 8 for Keating (62).
Ref -- M Duffy (Sligo).