Donegal won't win an All-Ireland, or perhaps even an Ulster title, with the performance that overcame Derry in Clones last night - that much is clear. But the road is already beginning to stretch and maybe a slight hiatus is no harm after all the bouquets thrown their way following the impressive dismantling of Armagh in the previous round and the summary dismissal of Tyrone.
It is a job done, not pretty but enough to qualify them for the Ulster final for a fifth successive year. There they face Monaghan for the third successive year. Derry came off a poor league that finished in relegation from Division 1 and they were winning few friends with some of the stultifying defensive football they appeared to be experimenting with. They had made hard work of the win over Down in the Ulster quarter-finals, with an extra man, but they were better last night and asked plenty of questions of Donegal.
Donegal were partly complicit and after a bright enough start they began to show signs of possible mental fatigue or a lack of stimulation. Having built up a useful 0-4 to 0-1 lead after 11 minutes they endured a 20-minute score freeze. During this spell Derry, while extremely defensive, got up the field enough to launch themselves back into contention and they were level when Mark Lynch scored a point from play in the 22nd minute.
That score was instructive of the mood enveloping the match as the much larger contingent of Donegal supporters in the crowd lost their voices. The source of the score was a failed point attempt by Colm McFadden which dropped short and Derry began a move that ended in Lynch's equaliser.
McFadden also dropped another short, while his team kicked eight first half wides, and at one point their manager Rory Gallagher became visibly displeased when Michael Murphy screwed a crossfield ball over the sideline on the far side, one of his players scrambling in vain to keep it in play. Derry took 19 minutes to score from play, through Caolan O'Boyle, but they were heartened to be on level terms by half-time.
McFadden redeemed himself with two good points while under tremendous pressure, the first of those ending Donegal's opening half scoring drought in the 31st minute. Derry's response was indicative of their stickiness, centre-back Chris McKaigue coming forward and kicking a score, leaving the teams tied at 0-5 a piece by the break.
Derry came within three points of Donegal is last year's Ulster quarter-final, undone by a Donegal surge right after half-time, and this time they suffered the same fate.
Michael Murphy, by his standards, had a relatively subdued game but still kicked two inspiring points in the second half. The first came before the game's only goal, ten minutes into the second half, when a break by Neil Gallagher created the overlap for Martin O'Reilly who rounded Thomas Mallon and finished well. Five points between the teams looked like serious daylight but Derry would not lie down.
From there Derry had the better of it which will give Donegal cause for reflection ahead of their bid to win a fourth Ulster title in five years. Another scoring drought ensued - this time almost as bad as the first, timed at 18 minutes. Derry responded with three points from Lynch, O'Boyle and Barry Heron, a second half sub, to close to gap to two points with play almost at the hour mark.
It took Murphy's intervention to stir Donegal when he landed a huge point seven minutes from time but Derry came again, their wing back Ciaran McFaul scoring a point a minute later, The rest of the match was played out scoreless but there was the threat of Derry breaking through for a match-winning goal. They never did and they never really went close but Donegal will know that a major improvement is needed in the days ahead.
Towards the end, the match threatened to boil over, with McFaul lucky to escape with a black card from Rory Hickey for a heavy challenge. Derry ended up taking off Eoin Bradley, who failed to score from play, and it was their lack of cutting edge which ultimately cost then. Still, they head into the qualifiers in better spirits, and will certainly have felt better than Armagh did two weeks ago.
Scorers - Donegal: M O'Reilly 1-0; P McBrearty 0-2 (1f); M Murphy 0-2; C McFadden 0-2; O MacNiallais, C Toye, M McElhinney 0-1 each. Derry: E Bradley 0-2 (2fs), M Lynch 0-2 (1f); C O'Boyle 0-2; C McKaigue, N Holly, B Heron, C McFaul 0-1 each.
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; M O'Reilly, K Lacey, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, M McElhinney; C Toye, O MacNiallais, R McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden. Subs: M McHugh for McFadden (57 mins); A Thompson for Toye (61); H McFadden for McElhinney (71); D Walsh for McBrearty (72);
Derry: T Mallon; O Duffy, B Rogers, D McBride; K Johnston, C McKaigue, C McFaul; N Holly, F Doherty; S McGoldrick, M Lynch, E Lynn; D Heavron, E Bradley, C O'Boyle. Subs: B Heron for S McGoldrick (46 mins); L McGoldrick for Duffy (47); T O'Brien for Lynn (48); N Loughlin for Bradley (61); E Lynn for O'Boyle (65); C McAtamney for Rogers (67, black card);
Referee: R Hickey (Clare)
Sunday Indo Sport