Donegal scrape over line in enthralling Ulster dogfight
Donegal had to battle to the very last nail-biting second to survive and book their place in the Ulster SFC final following an absorbing contest at Clones.
It was a dogfight, a negative one for much of the 70-odd minutes, but a fascinating and richly enjoyable one at that. The men from the north-west made it over their most difficult hurdle to date, and in doing so they provided conclusive proof that decisive strides have been made by Jim McGuinness in developing an effective strategy.
The counter-attacking approach worked a treat in dry runs against limited Cavan and Derry sides, but this was the real thing, and Donegal were not found wanting.
In the second half, McGuinness' dogged, defensive side were at their best, holding Tyrone scoreless for more than half an hour, but they needed a superb late save from Paul Durcan to deny Martin Penrose a goal that would have brought the Red Hands level.
Donegal go into the decider as hot favourites to see off Down, but for Tyrone, it's the Qualifiers and they now await tomorrow morning's draw.
Penrose eased Tyrone into a narrow 0-6 to 0-5 half-time lead, after the sides had been level on five occasions in the first half. But Donegal's massed defence squeezed the Red Hands out of the game in the second half, and scores from Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy and Karl Lacey saw them home.
But they needed a superb Durcan reflex save from Penrose's low shot in stoppage-time to deny the Red Hands and march into that final showdown with Down.
In front of a crowd of 17,330, Donegal suffered a blow when full-back Neil McGee was forced off by injury after just two minutes. Tyrone tested their opponents' defensive formula by pushing men forward in numbers and trusting in the athleticism of their defenders as they channelled back to deal with Donegal counter-attacks.
Early scores from Joe McMahon and Stephen O'Neill gave Tyrone some confidence that they could break the defensive code, but the scores were level five times in the first half as Donegal broke with pace.
Mark McHugh landed a monster point from 50 metres, and there were scores from Murphy and Paddy McBrearty to make it 0-3 each after 17 minutes.
Teenager Conor Clarke, a pre-match replacement at full-back for the injured Justin McMahon, pushed forward to steer over a point, and another foray from the Omagh man set up a score for wing-back Sean O'Neill.
Tyrone were enjoying considerable success in getting in behind the Donegal defence, particularly when they worked the flanks.
They almost had a goal in the 16th minute. First Joe McMahon wriggled through and got a shot away which was saved by 'keeper Durcan, and when the ball broke to Mark Donnelly, Paddy McGrath got back to keep out his effort.
As an intriguing tactical battle unfolded, Donegal forced a series of turnovers through sheer weight of numbers, while Tyrone's tackling was ferocious, keeping Colm McFadden scoreless, except for a 35th-minute free which brought the sides level for the fifth time.
Donegal's massed defence saw them surround Stephen O'Neill and Owen Mulligan with as many as five men each time they gained possession, but they could do nothing about a long-range Penrose point that nudged Tyrone ahead by 0-6 to 0-5 in stoppage-time.
Rory Kavanagh managed to find alarming gaps in the Tyrone defence to charge through twice in the opening three minutes of the second half to clip over points
The Donegal defensive cordon faced Tyrone every time they tried to push forward, but they did have some joy when they tried their luck from distance, with McMahon steering over a long-range free, and corner-back Dermot Carlin becoming their third defender to score. McFadden, from a free, brought Donegal level, and for all their defensive instincts, they looked much more convincing when going forward. Ryan Bradley eased them back in front for the first time since the fifth minute of the first half, and the Tyrone defence was looking less secure as the game progressed.
O'Neill did have a glorious chance when he got in behind the Donegal defence to collect Ronan McNabb's dropping delivery, but he lacked composure and blazed his shot wide. Tyrone introduced Brian McGuigan for his first appearance since last year's All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin in an effort to break open a Donegal defence that was now totally in control.
But Murphy, Karl Lacey and McFadden all thumped over scores that stretched the Anglo-Celt Cup holders' advantage to four with less than seven minutes to play. Tyrone were not finished and threw everything into their attack. O'Neill ended a 32-minute spell without a score, and when Penrose fired in a shot, Durcan reacted brilliantly to deflect the ball onto the bar with his foot.
Donegal held on, but only just.
Scorers -- Donegal: M Murphy (3f), C McFadden (2f) 0-3 each, R Kavanagh 0-2, R Bradley, K Lacey, P McBrearty, M McHugh 0-1 each. Tyrone: Stephen O'Neill, J McMahon (2f) 0-2 each, C Clarke, C Gormley (45), D Carlin, Sean O'Neill, Mark Donnelly, M Penrose 0-1 each.
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, F McGlynn; E McGee, K Lacey, A Thompson; R Kavanagh, N Gallagher; David Walsh, R Bradley, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden. Subs: Declan Walsh for N McGee (3), M McElhinney for Gallagher (54), M O'Reilly for David Walsh (54), L McLoone for Bradley (68), C Toye for McBrearty (72).
Tyrone: P McConnell; A McCrory, C Clarke, D Carlin; R McMenamin, C Gormley, Sean O'Neill; J McMahon, C Cavanagh; Mattie Donnelly, Mark Donnelly, P Harte; M Penrose, Stephen O'Neill, O Mulligan. Subs: R McNabb for Mulligan (49), B McGuigan for Mattie Donnelly (61), A Cassidy for Mark Donnelly (65), N McKenna for McMenamin (65).
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).
Sunday Indo Sport