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Donegal blaze their way to Ulster semi as Derry wilt in heat

Derry 0-16 Donegal 2-16

By Declan Bogue

Donegal have made it to their eighth consecutive Ulster semi-final, where they will face Down on June 10, after comfortably dismantling a game but doomed challenge from Derry.

If this was a boxing match, it would have been a comfortable win on points, with a couple of heavy body blows at opportune times to suck the life out of the losers.

There is always a certain amount of trepidation in the build-up to these games on the part of the favourites, but if the weekend has shown us anything, it is that the side who have played at a higher level in league football can dictate the pace the game is played at, then they are halfway to victory by establishing an early platform.

The process of gathering a team together in the first week of April and assembling a Championship-ready team was always going to be a huge task for Derry manager Damian McErlain.

Add in the fact that they played seven club games in five weeks (the average figure for Donegal players was two), then you can see the tight spot he was in.

McErlain made it clear he wasn't complaining about the club schedule but added: "We had to curb a lot of the work we did. Many nights were walk-throughs etc, and we got one challenge match against a county team and once against a club team at the last minute because somebody let us down.

"You can't hone everything on one challenge match, but at the same time that has nothing to do with us kicking 1-9 wide from the scoring zone."

It was reported in Donegal that no fewer than 22 players on the panel had pulled out for a round of club league fixtures in the month of April.

This kind of discrepancy throws the ball back into the court of the GAA in terms of implementing a 'club-only' month.

Even some of the players McErlain did use were behind in terms of preparation, with the lightly-raced Mark Lynch (right) performing an unusual sweeper role and the defence comprising four Slaughtneil players who had been away all spring on club duty and had to cope with two shattering losses in All-Ireland semi-finals.

James Kielt had played little league football for Derry and while he came on and his obvious talent for point-kicking from range was instantly utilised, it still wasn't an ideal situation.

In that light, the odds were slightly stacked against Derry, though this performance was a remarkable upturn on their two previous Ulster Championship games, both 11-point hammerings here, from Tyrone.

After a tumultuous day in the Leinster Championship, Ulster retains its slightly conservative feel thanks to goals from Hugh McFadden and substitute Cian Mulligan in either half to keep the Derry challenge at bay.

The architect of the two goals was Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton. After racing into a 0-4 to no score lead, Derry finally got on the board with a Mark Lynch free.

That was their cue to push up hard on Patton's restart and although the St Eunan's man is slight in build, he belted it to the far 45-metre mark where it bounced over Donegal midfielder Hugh McFadden, but Michael Murphy was alive to it, transferring onto Ryan McHugh and then back to the incoming McFadden who scuffed his shot, but it still went past Ben McKinless.

It's a subtle and yet important point to note that in that very play, Lynch was at the far end of the field pressing the kickout rather than sweeping. The goal was almost straight out of the playbook from those famous goals in the win over Dublin in 2014.

Shortly after, Derry centre-back Chrissy McKaigue was moved onto Michael Murphy to do a man-marking job, Michael Bateson finding it too tall an order. The day had a feel of that throughout - Derry plugging holes and fixing things on the hoof, Donegal choosing to land big scores at the time they could hurt Derry the most.

It wasn't until the 28th minute that they hit their first wide and they had just two wides in the first half, both from Michael Langan, who was replaced at half time by Odhran MacNiallais.

"We were in control throughout the game, we had that three, four, five-point cushion, but at the same time we just didn't put them away," said Donegal manager Declan Bonner afterwards.

"That would be a concern; we had opportunities also that we didn't take, we'd a couple of goal chances, which in a tighter match that you've got to take if you want to get over that Ulster line."

With Paddy McGrath also back in the starting grid, Donegal's squad have a lean and hungry look about them.

Derry had to survive on scraps, scoring just 0-3 from play in the first half and getting by with Emmet Bradley's frees while chalking up 13 wides in total.

After going in at half-time 1-10 to 0-7 ahead, Donegal never allowed Derry closer than a five-point gap.

At the same time they started unloading the bench and on a hot day were able to introduce the likes of Cian Mulligan, who put the result beyond all doubt with the second goal.

Once again it came from a clever Patton kickout, and was worked through Caolan Ward to substitute Daire ÓBaoill and then to Mulligan who applied pure power to his finish past McKinless.

In the very next play, Derry's Bradley wriggled far enough into the heart of the Donegal defence to rattle a shot that cannoned off the post.

Having lost Brendan Rogers to injury just before, they might feel they had little luck but a succession of poor wides, especially two in a row by Shane McGuigan, leaves them with no excuses.

Donegal now face Down in the Ulster semi-final in Clones on June 10.

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