By Francis Mooney
Donegal 2-22 Down 1-12
Despite playing for all but ten minutes of this Ulster SFC semi-final with 14 men, Donegal were utterly dominant and ruthless as they dismantled Down’s weak challenge at Clones.
The Mourne men struggled to reach championship intensity against a Tir Chonaill side that scored with ease en route to an intriguing provincial decider against Rory Gallagher’s Fermanagh.
Leo McLoone’s first half goal had them ahead by eight points at the break, and a second from Jamie Brennan sent them on their way to a 16 points lead, before Niall Donnelly pulled back a consolation goal right at the death.
Donegal were quickly into their stride against a Down side that looked static and hesitant, missing tackles and allowing a refreshingly positive opponent too much space and time on the ball.
Declan Bonner’s side punished ruthlessly, racing into an 11 points lead.
And they did that despite the 12th minute dismissal of full back Neil McGee, who was shown a straight red card for a challenge on Connaire Harrison.
Murphy and Paddy McBrearty swept over points, and Caolan Ward sent over a well worked score for a four points advantage.
Murphy and McBrearty added to their tallies, and in the 22nd minute, a Ciaran Thompson effort came back off a post and into the arms of Leo McLoone, who blasted to the net.
Donegal now led by 1-8 to no score, with the Mourne men finally opening their account in the 25th minute through wing back Caolan Mooney.
Harrison was now finding more space, and steered over a couple of scores, with Donal O’Hare also on target as the Mourne men set about closing the gap and making themselves competitive.
Donegal led by 1-12 to 0-7 at the interval, and a 1-4 blitz in the opening ten minutes of the second half magnified Down’s glaring problems.
A superb Murphy point was followed by two trademark McBrearty scores, and in the 45th minute they carved open the Down defence for a second goal.
Murphy won the ball, and after Thompson and McHugh had combined sweetly, Jamie Brennan was left to tap the ball to an empty net.
With a 15 points lead, Donegal were out of sight, and they remained disciplined at the back, conceding just two scores in the third quarter, to O’Hare (free) and Harrison, Down’s only genuine scoring threat.
McBrearty almost had a third goal, but his effort came back off the butt of a post, and they missed another goal chance when Stephen McMenamin palmed over the bar with the net gaping.
Down came close as well, with O’Hare bringing a super save from Shaun Patton, who kept out his shot with a trailing right boot, and they did get a consolation goal deep into injury time when Niall Donnelly hit the net.
Donegal: S Patton; P McGrath, N McGee, E Gallagher; C Ward (0-1), P Brennan (0-2), R McHugh (0-2); H McFadden, L McLoone (1-0); C Thompson (0-1), M Langan, F McGlynn; P McBrearty (0-6, 3f), M Murphy (0-5, 3f), J Brennan (1-3).
Subs: D O Baoill for Langan (43), O MacNiallais for McLoone (48), C Mulligan for Thompson (48), S McMenamin (0-1) for Gallagher (53), M McHugh (0-1) for McGlynn (57), E Doherty for P Brennan (64)
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 21), R Wells for McParland (h-t), S Dornan for S Millar (BC 36), C Poland for Doherty (48), D McKibben for Turley (54), F Flynn for McKibbin (64 BC)
Referee: A Nolan (Wicklow).