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Fermanagh fairytale comes to a bitter end in Clones

Donegal 2-18 Fermanagh 0-12

By Declan Bogue

For a day of such ground-breaking promise - Fermanagh in their first Ulster final in a decade, Clones turned mainly green and white, DUP leader Arlene Foster attending an Ulster final - it ended with a thump of reality as Donegal turned a scorching day into a pressure cooker for Fermanagh and careered their way to their ninth Ulster final victory.

It's almost regular that thoughts immediately spring from winning a provincial title to assessments of the champions' ability to win it all.

Most of it is hot air but this we can say without a doubt - just like Tyrone last year, Donegal were streets ahead of everyone else in the northern province.

Just look at the raw data; 2-20 against Cavan, 2-16 against Derry, 2-22 against Down and 2-18 against a defence that had been highly rated after conceding just 0-17 points in two wins over Armagh and Monaghan.

They have some of the most cohesive play in the country, with players darting wonderful support lines and looping round to cause havoc for the defence and in Ryan McHugh, they have an absolute pearl.

Against Down, he executed a 'no-look' pass to set up Jamie Brennan for a palmed goal. Here, he did something similar in the 16th-minute to leave raiding corner-back Eoghan Bán Gallagher with the simplest of taps home.

That put Donegal 1-2 to 0-1 up and, in truth, anyone who knows the pattern of these games would have known the chances of Fermanagh landing their first Ulster title had melted away.

Just after the half hour, McHugh put a couple of bolts on the coffin lid that had been nailed down. Taking possession on the Pat McGrane Stand end, he went at the Eastern Terrace and burned his way past Kane Connor and James McMahon to power a shot past Pat Cadden into the roof of his net.

2-5 to 0-3. No fairytales today, boys.

Donegal manager Declan Bonner had blown a dogwhistle during the week in appealing for referee David Gough to watch out for McHugh being targeted, and he stood by that in his assessment afterwards.

"Ryan gave a brilliant performance," said the man from the Rosses, who became only the third man to lead Donegal to an Ulster title after Brian McEniff and Jim McGuinness.

"He does get targeted in a lot of games, there's no doubt about that there but absolutely delighted for everyone, the players, the management, everyone involved. It's a brilliant day for us."

Twenty years ago he lost an Ulster final with a last-minute goal to Derry in his first spell as manager, and he admitted that this was a glorious second act after he took the job again last winter, inheriting a panel that hadn't won an Ulster title since 2014.

"It was part of that one missing medal and title that I didn't have was the Anglo-Celt but this wasn't about me," he said.

"I came in when Rory stepped down last year, we'd a lot of meetings with the players, we wanted to exactly where they were at and why things didn't exactly go right over the last 12 months and we started to work hard. The boys really knuckled down and you could that hunger and desire was still there within the senior players and also the younger lads came in and it's been brilliant." Bonner judged his tactics beautifully. Donegal pushed hard up on Fermanagh's restarts, forcing Pat Cadden to go long on 12 occasions. They strung Odhran MacNiallais, Hugh McFadden, Michael Langan, Michael Murphy and Leo McLoone across the middle to create a wall of green and gold giants and Donegal were able to win eight consecutive kickouts.

Rory Gallagher is no tactical slouch but when you are under so much pressure it felt like they were plugging the dam. Ryan McHugh went through Paul McCusker, Kane Connor and Eamonn McHugh as markers and Michael Jones was black carded for an off the ball collision with the Kilcar man.

With Che Cullen restricting Murphy to no scores from play until the 74th minute although not limited his influence, and Patrick McBrearty withdrawn at the start of the second half injured, but with only one point, they had a few cornerstones in to build towards victory.

But you can only be in so many places at once. Michael Langan exerted a serious influence and popped up in oceans of space everywhere. Paul Brennan came forward to hit a point and Gallagher helped himself to a point to go with his goal.

The second half passed off relatively peacefully, Fermanagh never truly threatening a comeback and when Ryan Jones was dismissed for a second yellow card, their tank ran empty.

There was the sniff of a goal on 44 minutes when a high ball into the Donegal goalmouth caused consternation and the ball bobbled about in the air, but it was called for square ball.

Donegal themselves had a goal disallowed minutes later when corner-back Paddy McGrath palmed to the net at the end of another one of those flowing moves but was adjudged to be in the square.

The final incident of note was when Fermanagh captain Eoin Donnelly let fly with a delivery towards the Donegal goal that carried on and smacked the underside of the crossbar, only to bounce out to safety.

But Donegal were not to be denied. As hungry as Fermanagh would have been with the weight of history heavy on their shoulders, you must bear in mind that nine of the men who played for Donegal here were winning their first Ulster medal.

They now get a direct route into the Super 8s quarter-final stage and will arrive with a road tested gameplan and plenty of threat.

"Look, Ryan's (McHugh) two goals, or the goal he scored and set up were the defining scores," said a crestfallen Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher afterwards. Their hope is to get to the Super 8s, win more games, become more competitive.

In 2008, they left an Ulster title behind them. Here, there were no such crumbs of comfort.

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