Donegal and Ernemen set for historic showdown
Down 1-12 Donegal 2-22
It's a Donegal versus Fermanagh Ulster final for the first time ever.
The north-west neighbours made it a pairing after overcoming a disorganised and meek Down challenge that seemed all over after the first 10 minutes. It was definitely over when the first goal went in, but it means in his first year in charge of Fermanagh, Rory Gallagher faces his old Donegal players in the provincial final. A small world.
There might have been a glimmer that Down could grab a foothold in this game on 13 minutes after the dismissal of Neil McGee, but already 0-4 to no score up, Declan Bonner's men hit 1-4 with no reply over the next 10 minutes to annihilate their opponents and set up what is a salty-looking Ulster final against Fermanagh, who are of course managed by last year's Donegal manager, one Rory Gallagher.
Thirteen points of a margin did not flatter Donegal in the slightest. In fact, it could have gone some way to match their record Ulster Championship defeat in 2016 when they lost by 19 points to Monaghan at this venue, only for three botched goal chances from Stephen McMenamin, Jamie Brennan and Cian Mulligan, in the last five minutes, along with Brennan hitting the post midway through the second half.
It goes without saying that the Ulster final will be nothing - absolutely nothing - like this. Tucked away in the Gerry Arthurs Stand here in Clones was Rory Gallagher along with selectors Ryan McMenamin and Ronan Gallagher. He left long before the final whistle. The planning has already begun for June 24.
One thing that will give them immense encouragement is the suspension of Neil McGee. He appeared to enter this game in a state of hyper-arousal and from the first Down attack, was grappling with his marker Connaire Harrison and sailing close to the wind. Both men were booked after 10 minutes after the umpires got a message to referee Anthony Nolan.
Three minutes later, Harrison collected a ball close to the stand and was wiped out by his own team-mate Darren O'Hagan on the overlap. However, while he went down, McGee put his two knees aggressively into Harrison's back. Nolan had actually awarded a free to Donegal but after some discussion with linesman Sean Laverty, reversed his decision to give McGee a straight red card.
There will be the usual rigmarole of appeals and so on, but at this stage McGee looks likely to be suspended.
"(The) allegation is that he put his two knees in. I didn't see it to be quite honest so we will just have to wait and see," said Bonner afterwards.
"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 we will look at it, analyse it and take it from there."
Although Donegal cleaned Down out in the first half, winning the first 10 kick-outs with Mourne goalkeeper Marc Reid put through a mental spin dry, Gallagher will have noticed that Harrison flourished with Caolan Ward as his new marker, hitting three points from play for the rest of the half and adding another in the second.
That was as good as it got for Down. Relegated to Division Three and now entirely outclassed, they never even gave themselves a chance here. Donegal had clipped over seven points with ease before Hugh McFadden caught a Down kick-out, it was worked to Ciaran Thompson whose shot came off an upright only for Leo McLoone to be alive to the rebound and slam home the goal.
Down actually outscored their opponents from this point to half-time with Harrison and Donal O'Hare getting on top of Ward and Paddy McGrath respectively, but the game had already entered that curious zombie world of the challenge game. At one point, Michael Murphy was cornered by Down's Brendan McArdle and rather than bend and take the inevitable slap, executed a balletic Zidane double drag-back to get out of trouble, or a 'lollipop' as it is known among Donegal folk.
Trailing by eight at half-time, Down made no real changes for the second half and Donegal hit them for 1-4 in the first 10 minutes without reply.
The goal came at the end of this burst, Reid's kickout finding nothing but space as Murphy collected and worked it through Thompson and McHugh again to set up Jamie Brennan for the easiest of finishes to the net.
From them on, it was a procession, Down's goal coming in the final play of the game through Niall Donnelly.
"If you were going to beat them you'd have had to put them under pressure all the time, and we didn't do that. The game eased away from us," said Down manager Eamonn Burns.
"A good start would've been very helpful for us, helped get our confidence up then we had difficulty getting our kick-outs away, which became a bit of a chore for us."
For Donegal, it's onwards now to the final.
As much as Gallagher will know his former players, Bonner was keen to state his players will know his approach.
"It works both ways and we can only look after our end of it - that's basically it," he said.
To be continued…
DOWN: M Reid; C Flanagan, B McArdle, A Doherty; D O'Hagan, N McParland, C Mooney 0-1; P Turley, N Donnelly 1-1; K McKernan, C Maginn 0-2, S Millar; D O'Hare 0-4, 3f, C Harrison 0-4, R Millar
Subs: R Johnston for R Millar (BC - 21m), R Wells for McParland (HT), S Dornan for S Millar (BC- 36m), C Poland for Doherty (49m), D McKibbin for Turley (56m), J Flynn for McKibbin (BC - 66m)
DONEGAL: S Patton; P McGrath, N McGee, EB Gallagher; C Ward 0-1, P Brennan 0-2, F McGlynn; H McFadden, L McLoone 1-0; C Thompson 0-1, M Langan, R McHugh 0-2; P McBrearty 0-6, 3f, M Murphy 0-5, 3f, J Brennan 1-3
Subs: D ÓBaoill for Langan (44m), O MacNiallais for McLoone (49m), C Mulligan for Thompson (50m), S McMenamin 0-1 for Gallagher (54m), M McHugh 0-1 for McGlynn (59m), E Doherty for P Brennan (66m)
Referee: Anthony Nolan (Wicklow).