Lacey sparkles as old values drive Donegal
Donegal 1-11 Derry 0-11
As the 70-minute mark passed in this heavyweight contest at Celtic Park, Donegal were doing the pressing, patiently playing the ball through willing hands and eyeing up a break to exploit in Derry's rearguard.
ULSTER SFC QUARTER-FINAL
Inevitably, it came. Karl Lacey, heroic all afternoon, found Leo McLoone behind the faltering cover and McLoone popped a point to sit snugly beside his goal that ultimately had turned this game some 31 minutes earlier. Their lead was back to three. Comfortable again.
At a time when Derry should have been conjuring up an escape route at the other end from a two-point deficit, they were pinned back in their own territory on their opponents' terms.
It said everything about this game, how it was largely played on Donegal's command. Even in the first half, when Derry had a higher percentage of possession, they were at arm's length, not penetrating in any meaningful way.
This was a tactical masterclass from Jim McGuinness. Containment in the first half gave way after the break to a blitzkrieg that focused on getting ball early and often into Michael Murphy.
Murphy had played in a much deeper position in the opening half as Donegal defended deep, but with wind in their favour he switched to a more orthodox full-forward role for much of the third quarter and the damage was immense. No great science there, but the timing was important. It energised everyone around.
A neat lay-off for McLoone's goal, via a subtle Frank McGlynn hand pass, and three points of his own from a free (which he won himself), from play and a wonderful sideline off the outside of his
right boot, turned the screw on Derry.
From 0-6 to 0-4 down, they hit 1-5 to lead by 1-9 to 0-6 within 12 minutes. Game over. Brian McIver would credit his team's response afterwards, but, really, a six-point lead on these terms was never manageable.
From holding Martin McElhinney and Neil Gallagher, originally selected as the midfield pairing, until the second half and getting impetus from them at a crucial time to trusting Lacey to attach himself to Mark Lynch for the afternoon, pitching in Paddy McGrath despite his dearth of game time and the timing of Murphy's deployment at full-forward, McGuinness got all his crucial calls right.
He had hinted at something unfolding, but it was a return to old values that have served them well in the recent past which was the hallmark of this performance.
Their patience, with or without the ball, just never wavered.
More often that not, they withdrew 13 players behind the ball to cut off the channels that Derry were able to source so often during the league. Sometimes, the whole team rolled up their sleeves to embellish the screen.
The discipline and desire to play this way, absent at critical times last year, was restored. No one reflected that more than the rejuvenated Lacey and McGlynn, who was so influential in that third quarter.
Lacey's turnover on Niall Holly was the catalyst for the third quarter surge, McGlynn raided on the left flank during that period like it was 2012 all over again. In tandem, Ryan McHugh was so effective with his possession.
They also had an effective kick-out strategy in place, with Paul Durcan manoeuvring them well around the field. The first three were caught cleanly by Murphy, Christy Toye and Odhrán MacNiallais.
Against the background of some potentially destabilising incidents, McGuinness managed to maintain a firm focus on this game, once again underlining his great capacity for perfect long-term planning. In each of his four years in charge, all first games in Ulster have been won convincingly by Donegal. Peaking for this day has become an art.
They hit hard and ran the gauntlet of potential censure at times. Once again, Murphy walked a fine line between what is and isn't legitimate contact.
The spectre of another questionable refereeing performance will hang over this match, however. To his credit, Joe McQuillan sought to let it flow and there was sufficient evidence to illustrate that games can be physical despite the threat of black cards.
Leo McLoone's challenge on Enda Lynn and Patsy Bradley's shoulder on Murphy, which briefly wobbled the Donegal captain and drew approval from the home crowd, were examples of legitimate, engaging contact in the opening half.
But too many stonewall frees just weren't given and some obvious yellow cards were overlooked.
Derry lost their influential midfielder Fergal Doherty with a heavy double-hit after just 16 minutes. He had taken two kick-outs cleanly at that stage and, though Holly did well as his replacement (he too would later be withdrawn with injury), the security that Doherty had provided was sorely missed.
Patsy Bradley delivered a big performance, but he was fortunate to be still on the field after his sixth minute challenge on MacNiallais that was firmly in 'black' territory.
Derry can point to a clear Neil Gallagher foul on Gareth McKinless in the 47th minute, which should have given them a free from a scoreable position to cut the deficit to two, as a turning point. McQuillan didn't award the free, however, and Murphy was able to engineer a free within seconds at the other end, which pushed the deficit to four (1-8 to 0-6).
Eventually, Derry lost James Kielt to a black card at the end. He had already picked up a yellow, but McQuillan didn't show the obligatory red. Derry had already used six substitutes by that stage. Pressed on McQuillan's performance afterwards Derry manager Brian McIver held his counsel.
"The less said about that the better," he reasoned.
McIver disputed whether the heavy league final defeat to Dublin had taken too much out of them, but players like Mark Lynch, Seán Leo McGoldrick and Gerard O'Kane just didn't have the influence on this game that McIver would have hoped for.
None of their starting full-forward line scored, with Cailean O'Boyle and Emmett McGuckin well held by the McGee brothers, who looked back to their imposing best.
McGuinness was indifferent afterwards to any negativity or criticism in the wake of the league final defeat that they shipped.
"I don't care, not one hoot because, for us the most important thing is the Ulster championship. We focus on it, prepare for it and try to get it right."
Switching the focus on to Murphy at full-forward was pre-planned, he admitted. "It's difficult when you are missing some of your key players in the middle of the park. There was a challenge for us, there was a breeze (against them) and we wanted to lay a foundation for the second half so we could get some good ball into Michael and that's how it panned out," he said.
Donegal may well have won by more. Paddy McBrearty was lively, but his finishing let him down. Twice, he dropped shots into goalkeeper Thomas Mallon's hands and struck an upright with another. One first half shot might have been a goal, but he cued badly wide. Donegal will take a lot from the performance. Their ability to hold their nerve and defend impressively remains in tact. For economic use of resources and planning, a 12 from 13 record in Ulster now for McGuinness says it all.
Scorers – Donegal: L McLoone 1-1, M Murphy 0-4 (2fs, 1sl), K Lacey, A Thompson, P McBrearty, D O'Connor, C Toye, M McElhinney all 0-1 each. Derry: M Lynch 0-4 (3fs), E Bradley 0-3 (2fs), B Heron 0-2 (1 45), C McFaul, N Holly 0-1 each.
Donegal – P Durcan 7; P McGrath 7, N McGee 7, E McGee 7; A Thompson 7, K Lacey 9, R McHugh 8; C Toye 6, O MacNiallais 6; D O'Connor 5, L McLoone 7, F McGlynn 8; C McFadden 5, M Murphy 9, P McBrearty 7. Subs: M McElhinney 7 for Toye (ht), N Gallagher 8 for O'Connor (43), David Walsh 5 for MacNiallais (57), L Keaney for McBrearty (65), D Molloy for McFadden (68).
Derry – T Mallon 7; D McBride 7, C McKaigue 6, G McKinless 8; K Johnson 6, G O'Kane 6, SL McGoldrick 6; F Doherty 8, P Bradley 8; C McFaul 7, M Lynch 6, E Bradley 7; E Lynn 6, E McGuckin 5, C O'Boyle 5. Subs: N Holly 7 for Doherty (16), R Bell 5 for O'Boyle (44), B Heron 7 for Holly (47), O Duffy 6 for Johnson (58), J Kielt for McGuckin (60), C McGoldrick for E Bradley (67).
Ref – J McQuillan (Cavan).