Rory Gallagher certainly didn’t plan for it, but if he wanted to dampen the hype that swelled after Donegal’s dazzling win over Armagh, then Saturday night in Clones provided them with a timely bump back down to earth.
Whether the long road is beginning to catch up with Donegal or they were just a bit flat after good displays thus far in the Ulster Championship has yet to be determined, but will be answered when they contest a fifth successive Ulster final appearance on July 19 against Monaghan.
Semi-finals are for winning and this one will be quickly consigned to the scrapheap. A sterile game suffocated by defensive systems and dogged persistence was at least brightened by some outstanding long-range points scored by both sides.
Michael Murphy hit a truly special score in the 41st minute from over 50 metres which raised Donegal spirits, but they found it hard to sustain the levels they displayed in their wins over Tyrone and Armagh.
They didn’t score for 20 minutes in the first half and only managed one point after Marty O’Reilly’s 45th-minute goal, leaving Rory Gallagher with plenty to think about ahead of the decider with Monaghan on July 19.
“It’s not a bad way to go in with a lot of work to do,” he said. “We played well in the spell after half-time and kicked a couple of massive scores from Colm (McFadden) and Martin (McElhinney) and Michael (Murphy) and then the goal was a great goal.
“So there was a lot of good football played, but we should have pushed on.
“When you go 4-1 up, you expect to push up and we were probably even more disappointed in the second half when we went five points up and sat back again. It’s too early to sit back.
“You need to be seven or eight points up before you could start thinking about killing the game, but you have to give Derry credit too. They had been in a league final last year and were focused on the championship all year, and we knew they were operating at a higher level than Armagh, so it was always going to be a difficult challenge.”
Brian McIver admitted he was “absolutely sick” not to have sprung an upset after Derry put up a better show than anyone had predicted.
The Oak Leafers fought back from three points down in the first half to draw level, and again reduced a five-point second-half deficit to two points.
But they were always chasing the game, which is no way to take out a Donegal team at this seasoned stage of its development and lacked composure in the crucial closing stages and were always chasing the game after Donegal outscored them 1-3 to 0-1 in a critical ten-minute spell after half-time.
Derry’s only hope was to get in front and stay there, but Donegal were never behind and there was always a feeling that if they had really needed a score, they would have engineered one somehow.
Ultimately, they failed in their bid to reach a first Ulster final since 2011 but this was a game the Oak Leafers could have won, though not necessarily should have won. Inevitably, both managers had very different opinions about that.
“That was one that got away from us,” claimed McIver, “we left this game behind us. We fully believed we were going to win this game and had prepared really well and we created the chances.
“Donegal are a great side but today I thought we more than matched them.”
Derry coughed up 1-3 from poor kickouts and ill-discipline cost them in the closing stages with Brendan Rogers and Ciaran McFaul picking up black cards in the last five minutes. They actually finished the game with 14 men as they’d already used all six subs by the time McFaul went in the 69th minute.
It looked ominous for Derry early on when Donegal eased into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead after 11 minutes. The favourites were quickly into their stride with Odhran MacNiallais, Paddy McBrearty and Christy Toye all scoring from play.
But they hit seven first-half wides and with each miss, Derry grew in confidence and they hit three points in a row to draw level at 0-4 each after 22 minutes. Eoin Bradley’s tap-over free was followed by a superb score from Cailean O’Boyle.
Mark Lynch popped up with the equaliser in a game with precious few clear-cut openings. Although they were doing good work out the pitch, Donegal were struggling once they got to the Derry ‘45 and didn’t score for 20 minutes.
Colm McFadden, back in the team after missing the win over Armagh with a virus, came up with the goods with a point from a tight angle to put Donegal in front again before Chrissy McKaigue came forward for the first time in the game and scored from distance to again bring Derry level at 0-5 apiece.
Thomas Mallon ensured the scores stayed that way at half-time after pulling off a smart save from Michael Murphy.
Donegal turned the screw after half-time with Murphy’s special score, and Martin McElhinney and McFadden also raising white flags before O’Reilly pounced for his second goal in as many games. Neil Gallagher’s run punched a big hole through the middle and he laid it off to O’Reilly, whose low shot across goal fizzed into the far corner to put Derry 1-8 to 0-6 ahead after 45 minutes.
The Oak Leafers battled on with a Lynch free and O’Boyle’s point reduced the deficit to three points with 20 minutes still to go before sub Benny Heron reduced the gap to two.
Derry flew into tackles and just when they thought they’d cleared the danger from one Donegal attack with a few half blocks, Murphy picked up the loose ball and stroked the ball over the bar with six minutes to go. Before his black card, McFaul curled one over from the wing for Derry to again leave two points in it but the last few minutes were marred by bad-tempered flare-ups as the play became messy and broken up.
Man of the match: Neil Gallagher (Donegal). Set up O’Reilly’s goal and had a big influence out the pitch and when playing in at full-forward. His energy and strong runs on the ball through the middle caused Derry problems.
Talking point: Coming through a dour battle like this could be the best thing to happen Donegal heading into another Ulster final. A low-key display will dampen the hype.
Magic moment: He has hit some crackers in his time, but Michael Murphy’s 41st-minute point from play from over 50 metres straight in front of the posts was an inspirational score.
Ref watch: Rory Hickey flashed two black cards to Derry players in the last five minutes and if Brendan Rogers’ dismissal was a hard call, there was no doubt about Ciaran McFaul’s. Indeed a few more blacks could have been shown.
What’s next? Donegal are preparing for a fifth Ulster final in a row, and a third successive decider against Monaghan, on July 19 at Clones. Derry await this morning’s draw for Round 2B of the All-Ireland SFC qualifiers.