Cavan 1-08 Donegal 2-14: The notion that teams enjoy rather greater parity of esteem on the Ulster championship landscape was even more forcibly jettisoned at saturated Kingspan Breffni Park yesterday.
If Derry provided telling evidence that Fermanagh are destined to remain among the also-rans in the title race for some time to come then, in what was nothing more than a nondescript mis-match, Donegal forcibly rammed home the message that Cavan have yet to leave the starting blocks in their quest for honours.
In truth, this was a tie — I hesitate to refer to it as a contest —that, while underlining Cavan’s technical and psychological flaws, served to shed very little light on Donegal’s aspirations of claiming silverware because of the paucity of opposition they encountered.
They could, of course, only meet the challenge with which they were confronted and to suggest that this was feeble would be to delve in the realms of understatement.
From the end of the first quarter it was abundantly clear that Cavan, who last won the Ulster crown in 1997, were clearly out of their depth.
The burden of confronting a muscular, focussed and well-organised Donegal side with seven championship newcomers, a markedly flawed blueprint and not the slightest hint of a Plan B not only saw Cavan shunted into the Qualifiers but left mortal wounds on their morale.
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness had hinted in advance of yesterday’s mission that his in-house games had been feisty, rugged and passionate. It is safe to assume then that his players experienced far more physicality and intensity on the training ground than they encountered yesterday.
Apart from the opening quarter, Cavan’s resistance was not so much limited as non-existent.
Their hollow route one ploy failed miserably as the two-man full-forward line was suffocated, their midfield laboured in vain and the half-forward division went AWOL.
In contrast, Donegal were brisk and businesslike, rigidly stoic for the most part at the back, creative in the middle third and impressively accurate up front.
Even the shock dismissal of skipper Michael Murphy by referee Martin Duffy in the 16th minute did not detract from Donegal’s efficiency in the slightest —and therein lies a selection bonus for McGuinness.
But Ray Cullivan’s red card eight minutes earlier for an outrageous challenge was in essence the beginning of the end for the home side.
Donegal simply moved up through the gears and, with 17-year-old Patrick McBrearty marking his first start in a championship match by whisking in a 21st minute goal after good approach work by Mark McHugh, the north-west side upped the tempo in a blistering spell that saw the ever-dangerous Colm McFadden land his third point to complement similar scores from Murphy, McBrearty and Kevin Cassidy that launched the side into a 1-6 to 0-3 interval lead.
Cavan failed to score from play in the opening half, Niall McDermott’s brace from frees and skipper Seanie Johnston’s solitary score of the day also from a free constituting their miserable return. Indeed, the normally free-scoring Johnston was imprisoned by the tigerish Karl Lacey, one of Donegal’s many heroes.
It was no surprise then that Donegal, on top in all sectors, hit motorway cruising speed and slipped away over the horizon after the break. Their movement was a blur at times, their murderous bouts of pressure bringing Cavan to their knees.
With McBrearty, who does not turn 18 until August, displaying the confidence of a veteran, McFadden an imperious presence up front and Neil McGee a colossus at full-back, Donegal simply evicted their hosts from the match. Rory Kavanagh, an industrious component in a well-oiled
machine throughout, slammed in a second Donegal goal in the 44th minute and this was the signal for manager McGuinness, his team’s place in the last four already assured, to parade the array of talent which has been decorating his bench.
Leo McLoone and Dermot Molloy availed fully of the chance to impress their boss, scoring three points between them, while Michael Hegarty’s fingerprints were on a lot of Donegal’s artistry following his introduction, particularly in terms of his creative passing.
And Neil Gallagher, a former team skipper, and skilful forward David Walsh also took the opportunity to fire out a reminder that they still covet starting places.
Cavan, for whom the willing McDermott grabbed four points, were thrown a morsel of consolation when lively substitute Michael Brennan, who really was worth a starting place, pirated a point from play and then stabbed in his team’s goal when Paul Durcan batted out Johnston’s anaemic 70th minute penalty effort.
But long before then it is reasonable to surmise that the wily and meticulous McGuinness had already mentally commenced the task of drawing up his strategy for the mouth-watering semi-final against reigning champions Tyrone at Clones on Sunday week.
Donegal: P Durcan; K Lacey, N McGee, P McGrath, K Cassidy (0-1), A Thompson, M Boyle, R Kavanagh (1-0), K Rafferty (0-1), M McElhinney, P McBrearty (1-3), R Bradley, M McHugh, M Murphy (0-1 free), C McFadden (0-5, 0-2 frees). Subs: M Hegarty for McElhinney (28 mins), L McLoone (0-1) for Cassidy (53), D Molloy (0-2) for Bradley (55), N Gallagher for Rafferty (58), D Walsh for McHugh (65). Yellow cards: Cassidy (17 mins), McFadden (41), Kavanagh (54). Red card: Murphy (16 mins).
Cavan: J Reilly; D Sheridan, P Carroll, D O’Dowd, N Murray, J McCutcheon, D Reilly, R Cullivan, D Givney, G McKiernan (0-1), M Lyng, F Flanagan (0-1), N McDermott (0-4, 0-2 frees), E Keating, S Johnston (0-1, free). Subs: G Smith for Lyng (43 mins), M McKeever for Reilly (50), T Corr for Sheridan (52), C Mackey for Murray (57), M Brennan (1-1) for Keating (62). Yellow cards: Keating (59 mins). Red card: Cullivan (16).
Referee: Martin Duffy (Sligo).