Old-boy Gallagher can now start plotting Donegal's downfall
Donegal 2-22 Down 1-12
When he parted ways, via a WhatsApp message to the group last July, Rory Gallagher mightn't have thought it, but he's back on the line in an Ulster final with Donegal.
Only this time, Gallagher will be in the opposing dugout.
Now managing his native Fermanagh, Gallagher was among the 12,051 in Clones who saw Donegal easily dispose of Down despite playing an hour with 14 men following the early sending off of full-back Neil McGee.
Donegal had 13 points to spare as they reached their seventh Ulster final in eight years.
"We got scores on the board, the threat was coming from all over the park and the lads are playing with that bit of freedom," Donegal manager Declan Bonner said after a game that saw 10 of his players on the scoreboard.
"You would have to say that Down didn't put the challenge to us. From our point of view, we can only look after ourselves and what is put in front of us. I thought we did adapt and had 10 different scorers from all over the park.
"We know the Ulster final is going to be a difficult test. It's one the lads are looking forward to. Some of these lads have lost two Ulster finals in three years."
An upset never looked likely here, even when McGee was dismissed.
McGee had already been shown a yellow card just 90 seconds earlier, going into the book along with Connaire Harrison, with the pair having grappled for much of the first 10 minutes.
As the pair jostled for possession close to the sideline, Harrison went to ground after colliding with team-mate Donal O'Hare.
McGee was in the mix, too, and, after consulting with his linesman, referee Anthony Nolan brandished red to the Gaoth Dobhair man. At the time, Donegal were considerably irked at the decision and Bonner suggested that Donegal are likely to appeal.
Bonner said: "The allegation is that he put his two knees in, but I didn't see it to be quite honest so we will just have to wait and see.
"Listen, Neil is an experienced player and is great within the squad. He has achieved so much and it would be a huge disappointment for him to miss out on an Ulster final, but listen, we will look at it, analyse it and take it from there."
Donegal's response to the red card was superb as Bonner's men kicked 1-4 before Down finally got on the board when Caolan Mooney opened his team's account in the 25th minute.
Leo McLoone finished for the opening Donegal goal three minutes earlier, firing home after Ciaran Thompson's effort rebounded back off the upright.
Down had a mini purple patch that yielded three scores in a row, but Donegal hit back when a monster Shaun Patton kick-out that reached way into the Down half was fielded by Michael Murphy, whose off-load found the scampering Ryan McHugh for a score.
Donegal had 11 points to spare when the excellent McHugh curled over off the outside of his right foot and they were eight in front at the break when Thompson scored in added-on time.
Two points by Patrick McBrearty in the 44th minute widened the margin but Brennan's goal was the cue for many of the Down faithful to make for home - with only 10 minutes gone in the second half.
Hugh McFadden batted down a kick-out into Thompson's path. McHugh flicked on his afterburners and transferred inside for Brennan to apply the finish.
Brennan was denied another goal when he struck against the post, while Stephen McMenamin palmed over the bar when he might've netted.
Down got a late consolation goal from midfielder Niall Donnelly, but it barely raised a cheer.
"When McGee went off, they're a very experienced side, they know how to play with 14 men," Down boss Eamonn Burns, whose men now head for the qualifiers, said.
"I'm not going to stand here and say it's not going to be difficult, it is going to be difficult but that's our job."
There's no such pondering for Donegal, who return to Clones to meet a familiar foe in two weeks' time.
Scorers - Donegal: J Brennan 1-3; P McBrearty (3f) 0-6; M Murphy (3f) 0-5; L McLoone 1-0; P Brennan, R McHugh 0-2 each; C Ward, C Thompson, S McMenamin, M McHugh 0-1 each. Down: N Donnelly 1-1; C Harrison, D O'Hare (3f) 0-4 each; C Maginn 0-2; C Mooney 0-1.
Donegal - S Patton 7; P McGrath 7, N McGee 5, E Gallagher 7; C Ward 7, P Brennan 8, F McGlynn 8; H McFadden 8, M Murphy 8; C Thompson 7, R McHugh 8, L McLoone 7; P McBrearty 8, M Langan 7, J Brennan 9. Subs: D Ó Baoill 6 for Langan (44), O Mac Niallais 6 for McLoone (49), C Mulligan 6 for Thompson (49), S McMenamin 7 for Gallagher (54), M McHugh 6 for McGlynn (58), E Doherty 6 for P.Brennan (65).
Down - M Reid 6; C Flanagan 6, B McArdle 5, A Doherty 6; D O'Hagan 6, N McParland 5, C Mooney 6; P Turley 6, N Donnelly 7; K McKernan 5, C Maginn 7, S Millar 5; D O'Hare 7, C Harrison 7, R Millar 5. Subs: R Johnston 6 for R Millar (BC 21), R Wells 6 for McParland (h-t), S Dornan 6 for S Millar (BC 36), D McKibben 4 for Turley (55), J Flynn 5 for McKibben (BC 66).
REF - A Nolan (Wicklow).