The jury will remain out on Donegal’s candidacy for ultimate honours this summer, but Jim McGuinness’s men went a considerable way towards reestablishing themselves as Ulster’s main movers and shakers, in Clones yesterday.
This victory over Antrim ensured Donegal’s spot in the provincial decider for the fourth straight season. Not even Armagh or Tyrone managed that in the not-so-distant past, when the balance of power up North swung between those two strongholds.
Donegal were, in fact, the last side to book a quartet of Ulster final berths. This side’s predecessors managed to make five between 1989 and 1993, winning just two but adding an All-Ireland title en route.
McGuinness’ men have already matched that haul, although they looked anything like a side seeking to make more history after a first half in St Tiernach’s Park that lacked intensity as much as it did quality.
Too much can be made of the conjuring powers of managers during the half-time hiatus, but Donegal emerged a genuinely different animal after it, and proceeded to blow away an Antrim side that had grown in stature as the first period went on.
Not that it should be held up as any sort of definitive statement. Antrim showed guts and some talent, but they had spent the spring disappointing in the fourth tier while Donegal earned their ticket back to the top.
There was no great tactical genius behind the defining spell. Not to this naked eye, anyway. Donegal simply dominated Antrim in the third quarter, squeezing their opponents into their own half and refusing to yield until the game was done and dusted.
Goals from Leo McLoone and Darach O’Connor after 42 and 49 minutes were buttressed by four points with Antrim’s only reply a lone Thomas McCann point shortly after the restart. It was a ruthless reduction of contest into procession.
Donegal started without two of their stalwarts, Karl Lacey and Rory Kavanagh sitting out the afternoon with minor injuries and Antrim were beginning to find a foothold when Neil Gallagher was forced off just 16 minutes in.
All of sudden, Donegal were operating without their influential centre-back and their starting midfield duo and Antrim’s defence in numbers and ability to counter at speed brought them back to parity — seven points apiece — at half-time.
It was an odd game.
Donegal waltzed through to pick off some easy scores on some occasions. On others, their shooting let them down and then there were the spells when the volume of Antrim’s defenders frustrated their best attempts.
Kevin O’Boyle swept up considerable ball for Antrim in his role as spare man at the back and the sight of Michael Murphy rumbling out to the half-forward line in the first half was symbolic of Donegal frustrations.
Liam Bradley’s side played with just Brian Neeson up front and playmaker Kevin Niblock in behind, but they picked off enough points from distance with enough frequency to keep their interest alive.
The late losses of Ricky and Marty Johnston due to a bereavement had seen Sean McVeigh parachuted in to shadow Michael Murphy and he made light of the short notice to put together a decent shift. Even with that, Murphy was the most impressive in a feared full-forward line containing Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty, the latter pair contributing just the one score from play between them.
The form of that duo is a concern for another day, but Donegal didn’t win an All-Ireland two years ago without a clutch of talent around the field and, in the likes of Christy Toye and Leo McLoone, they had leaders.
Most pleasing of all for McGuinness, however, will be the contributions of Darach O’Connor and Odhran Mac Niallais, youngsters with a combined age of 39 and a total scoring contribution yesterday of 1-6 from play.
Mac Niallais was superb in midfield, a position he has played more with county than his club, while 18-year-old ‘Jigger’ O’Connor feinted and darted about the half-forward line and making a dent far greater than his 5’ 8” would ever suggest.
McGuinness began dipping into his reserves with 20 minutes remaining on the clock, a luxury in the context of this Ulster Championship, and he spoke later of the smooth preparation the squad enjoyed in the four weeks previous.
Mac Niallais, too, mentioned the peak in intensity in intra-squad training this year compared to last summer and they were pushing strongly to the very end with Dermot Molloy’s 71st-minute goal rounding off the day’s meaningful events For now, the vibes are good.
The third quarter. Donegal hit Antrim for 2-4 inside the first 15 minutes of the second period and conceded just one point in the process. ‘Championship quarter’, as the Americans call it.
None to speak of. A remarkably low-key occasion.
Residents of Clones could be forgiven for asking last night if a game had been played at all. A 11,795 crowd watched in almost total silence for much of the contest, the first half in particular.
Donegal’s two late changes, Odhran Mac Niallais and Darach O’Connor, performed brilliantly, contributing 1-6 from play between them. Mac Niallais shades it for his all-round contribution.
None. As a game, it lacked the intensity that is said to be the lifeblood of the Ulster Championship. Three yellow cards was the sum total of the admonishments over the 70 minuets.
Liam Bradley played with just two men up front for most of this and yet Donegal continued to find easy pathways through to the Antrim goal. Intensity rather than tactics seemed to blow the game open after the interval.
Looked on impassively at a handful of what should have been clear frees for Donegal but, that aside, was spared the worst rigours of championship football in what was an even-tempered affair.
Donegal await the victors of the other semi-final between Armagh and Monaghan in four weeks’ time. It’s off to the qualifiers for Antrim.
Scorers for Antrim: T McCann (0-3, 2fs), B Neeson (0-3fs), M Sweeney (0-2), C Murray, K Niblock P Cunningham (f), P McCann (0-1 each).
Scorers for Donegal: D O’Connor, L McLoone (1-2 each), O Mac Niallais (0-4), D Molloy (1-1), M Murphy (0-3, 1f), C McFadden (f), C Toye (0-2 each).
ANTRIM: P Flood; N Delargy, S McVeigh, J Crozier; J Laverty, K O’Boyle, M Sweeney; M McCann, N McKeever; C Murray, P McCann, P McBride; T McCann, K Niblock, B Neeson. Subs for Antrim: R Murray for P McCann (47), T Scullion for McBride (51), P Cunningham for Neeson (55).
DONEGAL: P Durcan; P McGrath, F McGlynn, N McGee; A Thompson, E McGee, R McHugh; N Gallagher, O Mac Niallais; C Toye, L McLoone, D O’Connor; C McFadden, M Murphy, P McBrearty. Subs for Donegal: M McElhinney for Gallagher (16), David Walsh for McBrearty (51), D Molloy for O’Connor (56), L Keaney for Toye (61), Declan Walsh for N McGee (66), M O’Reilly for McLoone (71).
Referee: B Cassidy (Derry).