It was to their credit that they turned the game by playing the better football in the second half, though that came after Fermanagh lost Eamonn Maguire, their best forward in the first half, with a potentially serious head injury.
Donegal always looked likely to advance to the Bank of Ireland championship quarter-final against Cork next Saturday, after opening up a three-point gap and fighting off a determined late rally from the home side.
The game was vigorously contested from the opening minutes. Its closeness might have been exciting for opposing fans, but entertainment-wise it had limited value for the neutrals. It was typical Ulster championship fare, with plenty of players behind the ball and hits going in which both stretched the ability of the referee to keep the game going and took a strong physical toll on the players.
After 20 minutes all the teams had managed was three points each, which was explained by the difficulty they were experiencing in building up attacks and creating space. Notably, Fermanagh succeeded in turning over a fair amount of ball (something Donegal were to do to them later on) and in short periods on top they benefited hugely from the strong play of captain Marty McGrath at midfield and Eamonn Maguire in the half-forward line.
Conversely, Neil Gallagher (his direct opponent) was also prominent at stages for Donegal, who weren’t unduly weakened at full-back (due to the suspension of Paddy Campbell) because of the consistency of Neil McGee and the covering of his brother Eamonn when the pressure was greatest.
The only goal opening of note was created by late replacement Leon Thompson for Donegal in the 22nd minute, when he brought down a good ball to the right of the goalmouth but failed to get any power behind his shot. Encouraged by that, Fermanagh went in front with a Ciaran O’Reilly free and, with Donegal badly missing regular free-taker Michael Doherty, they stayed in front until the break, 0-5 to 0-3.
Maguire, who reported underwent a brain scan after the game, was injured in the 29th minute, in what seemed to be a fair shoulder charge by wing-forward Ciaran Bonner. The Donegal man was yellow-carded and was constantly booed by the home fans during the second half until he left the field with a foot injury.
Maguire was badly missed, but with substitute Ryan Keenan winning a lot of ball (but not finishing), it was Fermanagh’s inability to win more primary possession as the game developed which really undermined their challenge.
Donegal benefited hugely from the play of Leon Thompson at right corner-forward and Adrian Sweeney justified his introduction, while Michael Hegarty and Christy Toye both did invaluable work. They also got big performances from Neil Gallagher and from Barry Monaghan at centre-back.
Midway through the half, with Donegal back in front through Rory Kavanagh for the first time since the 13th minute, a clear pattern was emerging.
Their confidence buoyed up, the Ulster finalists looked like winners and you could sense the confidence draining from Fermanagh as the work of Barry Owens (in spite of some unforced errors), Ryan McCluskey and McGrath went largely unrewarded.
There was a slim hope of recovery after a McGrath score left only a single point between the teams with ten minutes of normal time remaining, but, it proved to be a false dawn. In the end, Donegal won pulling up.
*You’d have to have sympathy for Eugene Murtagh, because it was a very difficult to match to referee due to its physical nature. I thought he did as good a job as could be expected.
: Donegal: J. Gallagher (free), C. Toye and L. Thompson 0-2 each; A. Sweeney (free), M. Hegarty, R. Kavanagh, C. Kelly and S. McHugh 0-1 each. Fermanagh: T. Brewster (0-1 free) and E. Maguire 0-2 each; S. Doherty, C. O’Reilly (free), M. Murphy and M. McGrath 0-1 each.
: P. Durcan; K. Lacey, N. McGee, T. Donoghue; E. McGee, B. Monaghan, B. Dunnion; N. Gallagher, A. Thompson; C. Toye, M. Hegarty, C. Bonner; R. Kavanagh, J. Gallagher, L. Thompson. Subs: B. Boyle for A. Thompson (32nd minute); A. Sweeney for J. Gallagher (second half);. C. Kelly for Kavanagh (64th); S. McHugh for Bonner (67th); B. Roper for Hegarty (69th).
: C. Breen; R. McCluskey, B. Owens, S. Goan; R. Johnson, H. Brady, S. McDermott; M. McGrath (c), M. Murphy; M. Little, T. Brewster, E. Maguire; A. Little, S. Doherty, C. O’Reilly. Subs: R. Keenan for Maguire (injured, 34th minute); J. Sherry for Doherty (37th); N. Bogue for Goan (49th); D. Kelly for M. Little (56th); F. Reilly for Murphy (64th).
: E. Murtagh (Longford).