Donegal box clever against Derry to clinch final spot
Derry 0-10 Donegal 1-9
It was never going to be the kind of display that broke out in the sunshine and the heat of the Athletic Grounds, but in the end Donegal could lean on the ropes, pick their moments and rely on an experienced jab to keep Derry at bay.
They now go into their fifth Ulster final in a row. It has been done before by the team of 1989 to 1993, but they yielded just two Anglo-Celt Cups from that harvest. This team already has three from 2011 and will be fancied to make it a fourth when they face Malachy O'Rourke's Monaghan for the third consecutive year on July 19.
Once upon a time, O'Rourke and Gallagher played with each other for Fermanagh. Gallagher was assistant to Jim McGuinness when O'Rourke upset the then All-Ireland champions in the 2013 edition, but was absent from the bitter rematch last year. Expect that to get the odd reference in the build-up to the final.
As a match, this was Gaelic football sketched out from the coaches playbook. While Gallagher was happy to let his players bask in the Armagh whipping stating that he feels too much is made of tactics, this game was won by clever switching, tactical ploys and a late change to the starting line-up. And you also need your clutch players to produce their customary moments of class.
Gallagher was aware Derry were going to set-up defensively and acknowledged as much in the post match interviews, stating: "When we started the game we had no problem with it.
"I think we went 4-1 up early on. Then Derry took over and we had a barren spell.
"It looked like a lot of energy drained from our legs."
That had something to do with Derry getting to the pitch of the game, but also with what Gallagher said was a knock to the knee of Patrick McBrearty. With the Kilcar man often the only forward for Donegal and clearly hobbling around the pitch, they had no point of reference at the top of the attack.
In the kickout stakes, Thomas Mallon was having a nervous evening for Derry, only six of his 13 restarts in the first half finding their man.
Derry manager Brian McIver put a few fundamentals in place to beat Donegal; he put a tight-marking Kevin Johnston onto Michael Murphy.
They conceded only one pointed free. They engineered enough chances to win the game, clocking up 11 wides.
Call it a lack of composure or luck, it's only your own perception.
Sometimes you need the freakish things to swing your way, like for example when Fergal Doherty played Enda Lynn in for a goal chance in the first minute only for Paul Durcan to smother a panicky shot.
Or when Durcan came out to contest a high delivery from Mark Lynch towards Eoin Bradley.
The Glenullin man rose higher than Durcan but clever thinking from Neil McGee brought him to the square to bat the ball off the line.
Despite that, Derry kept their discipline to reel in the early Donegal lead and bring it to five each at half-time.
The body language was impressive as they sprinted off the pitch led by Chrissy McKaigue, McIver slapping them on their backs as they went.
Meanwhile, Rory Gallagher gathered his players on the pitch to catch their breath. They had the better of the play and the clearest goal chance of all when Mallon was forced into action after a long delivery from Ryan McHugh found Murphy hovering on the edge of the square to fist towards goal.
When the push came, it was enough to give the familiar feeling of inevitability to the final result. 1-3 arrive in 10 minutes, beginning with Colm McFadden's point.
Murphy picked up his first score of the day from distance, McElhinney came from deep to overlap and pick up a point.
And then, the hammer. Always the hammer.
Neil Gallagher fielded a Mallon kickout that flew over the head of Sean Leo McGoldrick clearly and made straight for goals, playing a one-two with McElhinney before finding Martin O'Reilly in space with the most subtle of handpasses.
O'Reilly had the pace and composure to round Mallon and place it in the net.
Derry ran their bench, tried a few things, but the game was in the bag. Everyone knew it. Eoin Bradley had been reduced to a bystander in the second half and was replaced with seven minutes remaining.
Putting the achievement of reaching the last five Ulster finals into context, Donegal's captain Michael Murphy commented: "It's no good unless you go on and try and get a performance that's worthy of a victory.
"When you do get that far, you want to go on and win. Three weeks for a huge push."
Another rumble with Monaghan in Clones. We should be fed up with it by now but strangely, we still have plenty of appetite.
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; R McHugh, K Lacey, F McGlynn; O MacNiallais 0-1, N Gallagher; C Toye 0-1, M McElhinney 0-1, M O'Reilly 1-0; P McBrearty 0-2, 1f, M Murphy 0-2, C McFadden 0-2. Subs: M McHugh for McFadden (58m), A Thompson for Toye (61m), H McFadden for McElhinney (70m), D Walsh for McBrearty (73m).
Derry: T Mallon; O Duffy, B Rogers, D McBride; K Johnston, C McKaigue 0-1, C McFaul 0-1; N Holly 0-1, F Doherty; SL McGoldrick, M Lynch 0-2, 1f, E Lynn; D Heavron, E Bradley 0-2, 2f, C O'Boyle 0-2. Subs: B Heron 0-1, for McGoldrick (47m), L McGoldrick for Duffy (48m), T O'Brien for Lynn (51m), N Loughlin for Bradley (63m), Lynn for O'Boyle (65m).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare).