McBrearty finds his range to swat aside Meath hopes
Donegal 2-19 Meath 1-13
It wasn't the first time Declan Bonner stood outside a dressing-room reflecting happily on the immense contribution of Donegal's big leaders to an important victory.
And if they go on to justify their billing and challenge for this year's All-Ireland, it won't be the last.
"Michael leads by example all the time," Bonner said, doffing his cap to Donegal's captain, Michael Murphy, a totemic presence in the team again yesterday in Ballybofey in a match that threatened briefly to get away from the home side.
"And listen," he added, "I thought Ryan was outstanding."
Ryan McHugh had indeed been outstanding, scorching the earth upon every touch of the ball.
And then there was Paddy McBrearty.
At 25, McBrearty was playing his hundredth game for Donegal in a nine-point victory over Meath and, typically, he threatened to score with every possession.
A personal bounty of 1-6 (3f) even featured one point off McBrearty's lesser-spotted right foot.
For all that, there was a moment when Donegal's candidacy as genuine All-Ireland contenders seemed highly dubious.
Meath had summoned a burst of scoring that put them into the lead by the 54th minute, the moment when substitute Darragh Campion scored a point with his first touch.
Whether by consequence or coincidence, Donegal's use of the ball became ponderous in the final third.
And so the baked supporters in MacCumhaill Park became collectively agitated. From then until the end of the game, Meath scored 0-1.
Donegal, re-energised by those leaders and a multi-talented bench, powered for home and scored 1-6.
"I thought we showed real character to come back," reflected Bonner.
"I thought the lads coming off the bench had a major contribution."
The sense of satisfaction in Ballybofey yesterday afternoon wrestled with a feeling of relief.
This was Donegal's designated home match against the team making their debut in the Super 8s and least fancied to make it any further.
With Kerry in Croke Park next week and a trip to Castlebar to come thereafter, a victory here was vital.
"Listen, exactly, there's no doubt about that," he admitted.
"It's vital that we won our home match and we go to Croke Park next Sunday with two points in the bag. We have to improve, but when your first match is at home you've got to win it."
Though it finished in disappointment, Meath's first day among the elite was mostly positive.
If they understandably faded under the piping hot early-afternoon Donegal sun, that was only after they made a serious game of it.
Early on, Cillian O'Sullivan tested the Donegal defence for pace while Bryan McMahon's shooting from acute angles was pristine.
"A point up with 15 minutes to go does not get the job done so we would be very disappointed," reflected Andy McEntee afterwards.
"But very proud and happy with the performance considering the amount of people who did not give us a chance.
"We put on a decent show out there."
As ever, Donal Keogan was an inspiration. The Meath co-captain was fouled by a combination of Donegal defenders early in the second half for the penalty Mickey Newman converted to prompt the comeback.
It was the second penalty Keogan was fouled for this summer, in a Championship where he contributed direct assists for four Meath goals.
"We had the momentum and we switched off for a second and we fell to a long kick-out tactic which has served them very well," McEntee added.
"We fell asleep, they got momentum and we struggled to get it back. That happened us a couple of times against Donegal and that is down to the quality they have."
It's not beyond Meath's capabilities to make life stressful for Mayo next weekend. Ultimately, McEntee didn't have the sort of quality on his bench Bonner summoned, but they created goal chances that could have changed the dynamic of the game.
With their first attack, O'Sullivan fisted over the bar from an angle when he had an option inside.
In the second half, Shane McEntee went surging through but laced his shot over Shaun Patton's crossbar when a more composed effort could have tested the Donegal goalkeeper.
That was in the 59th minute and it proved to be Meath's last point.
Meath also had a goal ruled out for a square ball after Gavin McCoy palmed a squared pass to the Donegal net.
It all added to the tension but the cool, wise heads of Murphy, McBrearty and McHugh steadied Donegal.
The impetus brought by Daire Ó Baoill, Eoin McHugh, Oisín Gallen and Frank McGlynn saw them accelerate to the finish.
"They gave us energy," Bonner agreed, "they gave us legs and gave us quality at a time we needed it."
Donegal were already home and mostly dry by the time McGlynn fed Gallen, who opened an angle for himself to score the goal that put a somewhat deceptive look on the scoreline.
SCORERS - Donegal: P McBrearty 1-6 (3f); O Gallen 1-1; J Brennan, Murphy (1 '45) 0-3 each; R McHugh 0-2; J McGee, N O'Donnell, M Langan, E McHugh 0-1 each. Meath: M Newman 1-2 (1-0 pen, 1f); B McMahon 0-3; B Menton, C O'Sullivan 0-2 each; S McEntee, J Conlon, J McEntee, D Campion 0-1 each.
DONEGAL - S Patton 8; S McMenamin 5, N McGee 6, O McFadden Ferry 6; P Brennan 6, E Gallagher 5, R McHugh 8; H McFadden 6, J McGee 7; C Thompson 6, M Murphy 8, N O'Donnell 5; P McBrearty 8, M Langan 7, J Brennan 7. Subs: D Ó Baoill 6 for Brennan (43), E McHugh 7 for Thompson (48), O Gallen 7 for O'Donnell (48), F McGlynn 6 for McGee (60), E Doherty 6 for McFadden Ferry (68), C Ward 6 for McMenamin (70).
MEATH - A Colgan 7; S Lavin 6, C McGill 7, S Gallagher 6; D Keogan 8, P Harnan 7, G McCoy 6; M Menton 7, S McEntee 6; E Devine 6, M McMahon 7, J McEntee 6; C O'Sullivan 7, M Newman 7, J Conlon 6. Subs: S Walsh 6 for Conlon (43), D Campion 6 for Devine (45), S Curran 6 for Gallagher (57, black card), G Reilly 6 for McMahon (62), A Flanagan 6 for S McEntee (65), T O'Reilly 6 for O'Sullivan (69)
REF - C Lane (Cork).