Donegal 0-16 Derry 0-15
Maybe Derry should have got a little bit more luck. Maybe a penalty call could have gone for them in the sixth minute when Stephen McMenamin’s tug brought Shane McGuigan to the ground.
Perhaps they might have forced extra-time as they dithered and tried to show composure despite a few half chances opening up.
And they had a chance palmed onto the crossbar when the excellent Padraig Cassidy passed across the face of goal but Benny Heron still had to climb and his palmed effort hit the woodwork.
But sometimes there is nothing quite like the old dog for the hard road. When Donegal took the lead for the first time in this quarter-final, it was Patrick McBrearty converting a free after Odhran MacNiallais was fouled.
They had drawn level for the fourth time in the game when the grizzled Michael Murphy converted a free after Ryan McHugh was fouled.
And when the winner came, it was from MacNiallais finding a pocket of space for a Shaun Patton kickout. The ball was worked around the fringes for a bit but eventually it came back to McBrearty, looping around MacNiallais and he nailed it from out wide and a fair distance out.
This was a Patrick McBrearty, don’t forget, who by this stage had been held scoreless from play by Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue.
“There is no doubt, he was well marshalled and that,” admitted Donegal manager Declan Bonner afterwards.
“But, when you have Patrick McBrearty, he has the confidence in himself. Doesn’t matter how well he was playing, he was taking that shot on and it was a brilliant score.”
Derry needed to take a few gambles to win this, coming as they were from a low base, untested against true quality opposition.
They needed to press up on Shaun Patton’s kickouts, and yet they also needed the safety of a ‘plus one’ at the back. In such circumstances, Donegal are left with a free man and, more often than not, it was Ethan O’Donnell. And Patton was able to find him with his lead-lined boots. This gave Donegal a position high up the pitch with the Derry defence bent out of shape.
From a position of 0-6 to 0-2 up, Ethan O’Donnell set Niall O’Donnell up for a point from the kickout. And when Shane McGuigan nabbed a point back for Derry, it was an instant reply again from Donegal, this time Jamie Brennan.
For the most of the first half, Derry’s totemic midfielder wasn’t far from Michael Langan’s side while defending the ball in case he went on one of those trademark slalom runs and had a dig at the nets. Twice within a minute Langan found himself in a central position without Glass for company and he made good on his opportunities to send Donegal down the tunnel for half time a single point adrift, 0-7 to 0-6.
Derry drew level from Caolan McGonigle soon after the restart but between the 41st and 48th minutes Derry hit four unanswered points. With nine players on the scoresheet there were a lot of one-point contributions and they seemed to be really in the zone.
By that stage Derry’s manager Rory Gallagher was even more animated than usual, conducting surreal conversations with Donegal’s Ryan McHugh during a break in play and substitute Odhran MacNiallais as he prepared to come in.
Enter Michael Murphy.
The pre-game debate was around his fitness and the state of his hamstring. In the warm-up he didn’t horse any balls or hit any rasping shots, instead side-footing everything. But in the middle of a Derry scoring spurt, he was sent for.
He has hit frees from further distances away, but when he came on, they were sinking. He gave them buoyancy.
Niall O’Donnell possibly wouldn’t be the household name you’d reach for in Donegal, but he hit three points from play here.
The significant thing is they came to claw back a four point Derry lead in the first half. The next was when he slalomed past two Derry players to narrow the gap to one on the hour mark, and he equalised three minutes later.
And there were other massive plays. At one point Gareth McKinless ducked his head down to try to burrow past Paul Brennan but the Bundoran man is an excellent tackler and dislodged the ball.
The play ended with Brennan himself slotting the ball over the bar. After the water break, Donegal hit five of the next six points to bring it to the wire. Extra-time looked a distinct possibility until McBrearty’s worldie point. And still Derry came with a final attack.
There were half chances for Gareth McKinless and Shane McGuigan, but the most space was available to Conor Glass. He recycled again as they searched to draw a free or make the perfect incision.
Eventually, referee David Coldrick had seen enough. He blew time. Derry’s journey was over. Donegal head to Brewster Park for an Ulster semi-final against Tyrone and their watching management team of Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan here.
Championship is finally here, thank God.
DONEGAL: S Patton; E McHugh, N McGee, S McMenamin; R McHugh, O McFadden-Ferry, EB Gallagher; H McFadden, C McGonigle 0-2; C Thompson, N O’Donnell 0-3, M Langan 0-3; P McBrearty 0-3, 2f, J Brennan 0-2, E O’Donnell
Subs: B McCole for McMenamin (40m), P Brennan 0-1, for McFadden-Ferry (44m), M Murphy 0-2f, for J Brennan (46m), O MacNiallais for E O’Donnell (49m), O Gallen for Thompson (72m)
DERRY: O Lynch; C McKaigue, B Rogers, P McGrogan; Padraig Cassidy 0-1, G McKinless 0-1, C Doherty 0-1; C Glass 0-1, E Bradley 0-1; E Doherty, N Loughlin 0-1, C McFaul 0-3; B Heron 0-2, S McGuigan 0-4, 2f, Paul Cassidy
Subs: O McWilliams for Heron (58m), N Toner for Paul Cassidy (62m), C McCluskey for E Doherty (64m), P McNeill for Loughlin (75m)
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)
Man of the match: Niall O’Donnell (Donegal).
Match rating: 8/10.