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Bonner hails patient Donegal ahead of Tyrone semi-final

Fermanagh 0-9 Donegal 0 -15

Crowded out: Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Paddy McGrath surround Fermanagh’s Ryan Jones as Donegal came out on top at Brewster Park
Crowded out: Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Paddy McGrath surround Fermanagh’s Ryan Jones as Donegal came out on top at Brewster Park
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Listen, everybody knew what they were getting here. So it was no surprise that as soon as Fermanagh lost the first throw-in at Brewster Park, they retreated en masse and everyone in a green shirt camped inside their own 45 metres.

And that's almost how the game remained while Donegal were in possession. This was a conundrum they had to work out on their way to a semi-final against Tyrone that, for many, will be the de facto Ulster final in under a fortnight's time.

There was nothing the management teams didn't know about each other but Declan Bonner had just too many prize pupils for Fermanagh.

Once they had the benefit of the breeze blowing towards the town end, Donegal opened up the predicted gap by nailing nine out of 16 shooting chances to push out a 0-5 to 0-4 half-time lead to a six point margin by the finish.

"We always knew it was going to be difficult coming into Brewster," said Bonner.

"It is never easy but you know the way that they are going to set up. We had to be patient to break that blanket and I think we were.

"We had a really controlled performance in the second half and some of the point taking in the last quarter was top class."

To that end, he had Paddy McBrearty back in a Donegal jersey for the first time since he ruptured a cruciate ligament in last year's provincial decider between these two.

The Kilcar man had played four games in April with his club Kilcar and Bonner felt confident enough to not only start him, but to keep him on the pitch until the referee blew the full-time whistle. "He has been out of football a long, long time," Bonner said.

"It is one thing training and playing club matches but this was the white heat of Ulster Championship and that game will bring Paddy on a lot. I thought in that second half, he was outstanding and kicked a couple of great scores and it was great to have him back on the field."

The main aim of Fermanagh was to frustrate and panic Donegal and the fine analysis will pick out encouragement.

It took 18 minutes for Donegal to register their first score, Jamie Brennan lofting over the first of his four under severe pressure. By that stage, they had chalked up six attempts that either flew wide or dropped short.

Fermanagh's gameplan worked really well, apart from where it really matters. And here's a statistic for the ages. Out of the 25 kickouts that Fermanagh went long, they won possession 20 times.

That's all a coach can do. At some point, he has to hand over to the players.

But when Sean Quigley, the one natural shooter Fermanagh have, pulled up in training last week with a slight pull on his hamstring, Gallagher will have known his chances were left in dust. Donegal wiped out Fermanagh's opening two point lead through two Paddy McBrearty frees and a single from Leo McLoone by the half hour mark.

Given the close quarters, the action was ferocious at times, epitomised with a mammoth hit by Erne captain Eoin Donnelly on Ciaran Thompson just on the stroke of half-time.

However, the influence of Michael Murphy was brought to bear in the third quarter.

Brennan clipped two and McBrearty one over from distance, but it was Murphy who opened the space for them and he also cut inside the defensive lines and lofted a glorious effort over himself.

Fermanagh's game efforts kept them in the contest and they might have caught a break when Paddy McGrath caught Conall Jones with a head-high challenge along the sideline. Caolan Mooney was sent off in the Down-Armagh game last week for less, but referee Joe McQuillan opted for a yellow card.

Sportingly, Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher had no issue with it.

"Your initial reaction… you shout," he admitted.

"But I didn't think it was a red card. It was a player coming down and as much as I would like to have seen it at the time, I thought Joe McQuillan displayed common sense. It was probably a slightly over-aggressive tackle, but those are difficult ones and I understand the directive, but I would have had no problem with that."

First Ultan Kelm then Barry Mulrone from distance, followed by a Conall Jones free and a serious effort from the impressive Ciaran Corrigan narrowed the gap to a single point.

If there was a breaking point, it was in a freakish play next. Murphy produced a shot that looped off his boot and while Fermanagh defenders had a brief conflab about who should deal with the dropping ball, in their hesitation it bounced up and McBrearty managed to get his fist onto it to send over for a point.

Is there a better team than Donegal to defend a lead? With Fermanagh continuing to sit deep, they indulged in a little keep-ball that drained the energy from Fermanagh, forced them to draw out and leave gaps. The result from this point was never in doubt and they chalked up five of the last six points.

The finest of them came from that man Murphy who began an attack deep in his own half and then scorched through to get on the end of the move and arrow over.

They meet Tyrone now on June 8, in Kingspan Breffni Park. A humdinger in store. Let battle commence.

Belfast Telegraph

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