Young guns fire as Donegal signal All-Ireland intent
Donegal 2-18 Fermanagh 0-12
All the talk in the build-up was of Fermanagh's miserly defence and the conundrums which they would pose for Donegal, but Declan Bonner's men blew the Erne men out of the water to highlight their All-Ireland credentials.
Harshly relegated from Division 1 earlier this year after a string of promising displays, Donegal have hurtled their way through Ulster, clocking 8-76 in four games - conceding 2-55 - to show the type of attacking firepower that could cause the bug guns trouble.
Much maligned under previous manager Rory Gallagher for their lack of flair up front and an over-reliance on Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty, their talismanic pair hit only a point apiece from play as 13 different scorers were on target.
The pace, power and relentless running of first-half goal-scorers Eoghan Bán Gallagher and Ryan McHugh - as well as Paddy McGrath and Paul Brennan - from deep sliced open an Erne defence that had previously been watertight, conceding just 17 points against Armagh and Fermanagh.
That combined with the pin-point accuracy of Shaun Patton's kick-outs - his standard is continuously rising - and a rock-solid rearguard masterfully led by the sweeping Hugh McFadden, makes them a dangerous animal.
With strength in depth and the likes of Cian Mulligan, Mark McHugh and Anthony Thompson - among many others in a formidable match-day 26 - to come off the bench, they are a daunting proposition but they face the acid test against All-Ireland champions Dublin in three weeks.
That kicks off the 'Super 8s', which will be a welcome introduction after average provincial final winning margins of 12.75 points this year, but Bonner acknowledges that his new-look side have some distance to travel.
"We have to move on and these guys have to get better and go to the next level now. It's a work in progress, but we still have a long way to go to be the finished article," said Bonner, who made up for Ulster final defeat to Derry as manager 20 years ago.
That's for another day, however, as The Hills of Donegal rang out over the tannoy amid scenes of jubilation as a ninth Ulster SFC crown was secured, with Bonner becoming just the third Donegal senior boss to guide them to provincial success after Brian McEniff and Jim McGuinness.
Led to glory for the fourth time by Murphy ("only up there collecting a piece of tin on behalf of everyone else") the Glenswilly powerhouse was delighted to consign the demons of last year - when they lost the Ulster final to Tyrone and fell meekly to Galway in the qualifiers - to a dark corner.
"I suppose last year we had a team that was getting a bit tired, we'd some of the older players still around. They were two very heavy defeats to take for us all, whether young or old, against two very big teams," a beaming Murphy said.
"Learnings were taken and taken very well by a lot of the younger lads and we pushed on and pushed forward again. That's what you have to do, you either give up and not play, or you come back again year after year and put yourself out there and out yourself in position for a day like today."
For Rory Gallagher, who admitted that defeat to his former charges (who he managed from 2015 to '17) and shook hands with Bonner before the final whistle, it was a bitter pill to swallow but he won't be paying any notice to pundits knocking Fermanagh's defensive style.
"I pay absolutely no heed to it. We know the players at our disposal and we are trying to win as many games as we can and we are trying to improve game by game and week by week," Gallagher said.
"It's very disappointing when you are involved in a team and everybody is together, working really hard and wants the same outcome. We have come a long way with that. You say we lost in some style but if you lost narrowly you would still feel like crap."
DUP leader Arlene Foster, a Fermanagh native, was among the crowd as Donegal, after a cagey start, took control when Eoghan Bán Gallagher palm to the net in the 14th minute to finish off a sweeping move.
Fermanagh's first score from play didn't arrive until the 30th minute when skipper Eoin Donnelly sent over a point to trail by five, 1-5 to 0-3, but seconds later the game was over as a contest when McHugh surged through and fired to the roof of the net.
The consensus had been that Fermanagh's only realistic hope was to build a lead and hang on; a 2-7 to 0-5 half-time deficit left them chasing the game and going against their defensive style, and it didn't get much better upon the resumption, although Seamus Quigley's introduction did offer a fresh impetus.
Donegal tagged on 11 points but McBrearty's knee injury was a concern was as they kept Fermanagh at arm's length in a sun-kissed Clones, with coach Karl Lacey delighted that many of the new breed had reached the promised land after "three or four years of hurt".
"We've been hearing all week and this past few weeks about Fermanagh's hunger," he said.
"But we've been saying to ourselves 'sure we should be as hungry as them'. A lot of those boys didn't have medals at senior level.
"We've had three or four years of hurt. We haven't had a feeling like this since 2014.
"They have worked hard and this is why, they're getting their rewards now. That's why you play football for Donegal, for days like this."
SCORERS - Donegal: M Murphy 0-4 (3fs), EB Gallagher 1-1, C Thompson 0-3 (1f), R McHugh 1-0, P Brennan 0-2, P McGrath, D O'Connor, O MacNiallais, M Langan, P McBrearty, J Brennan, C Mulligan, M McHugh 0-1 each. Fermanagh: Sean Quigley 0-4fs, Seamus Quigley 0-3 (1f), E Donnelly, C Corrigan, B Mulrone, C Jones, R Corrigan 0-1 each.
DONEGAL - S Patton 7; P McGrath 8, S McMenamin 7, EB Gallagher 8; F McGlynn 7, P Brennan 8, R McHugh 8; H McFadden 7, M Murphy 7; L McLoone 6, M Langan 8, O Mac Niallais 6; C Thompson 7, P McBrearty 6, J Brennan 6. Subs: D O Baoill 6 for McBrearty inj (39), C Ward 6 for P Brennan (57), A Thompson 6 for Mac Niallais (61), C Mulligan 7 for Langan (64), M McHugh for C Thompson (65), D O'Connor for J Brennan (68).
FERMANAGH - P Cadden 6; K Connor 5, C Cullen 7, M Jones 6; B Mulrone 7, J McMahon 6, L Cullen 6; E Donnelly 7, R Jones 6; P McCusker 6, D McCusker 6, A Breen 6; S Quigley 6, C Jones 7, C Corrigan 6. Subs: E McHugh 6 for Connor (33), C McManus 6 for M Jones (h-t, BC), Seamus Quigley 8 for P McCusker (h-t), T Clarke 6 for Corrigan (45), R Corrigan 7 for Sean Quigley (57), D Teague for D McCusker (67).
REF - D Gough (Meath)