A 51st-minute second yellow card for Michael Murphy’s high foul on Eoin Cadogan may have been a catalyst, but into the teeth of a hostile wind, Cork found the net through Tomás Clancy and may have completed a rescue job if Donal Óg Hodnett’s 67th-minute kick hadn’t curled wide.
Things had looked bleak for Cork in the 48th minute when a marvellous Murphy free from 55 metres made it five points without reply for Donegal. Unlike Cork, who couldn’t muster a lead after the first half, the home team were availing of the wind.
Neil Gallagher’s presence at midfield was a significant factor, while Donegal punished Jamie O’Sullivan for twice fouling the ball, scoring a free on each occasion. Cork were also finding Donegal powerful in the tackle and were being turned over far too easily.
Colm O’Neill’s 53rd-minute free was Cork’s first score in 29 minutes; Clancy’s goal in the 58th their first from play in 34. After some good build-up by substitute Paddy Kelly, Brian Hurley squared the ball. Paul Durcan failed to negotiate it and Clancy was on hand to direct to the net.
Donegal might have cancelled that out on the hour mark when Ryan McHugh hesitated as supporters screamed at him to shoot. Cork made him pay for it almost immediately when Hurley finished a quick move to cut the deficit to one.
A McBrearty score provided more breathing space for Donegal, only for O’Neill to convert another free with five minutes of normal time left. Last year’s All-Ireland runners-up, though, held out to join their opponents at the top of Division 1.
A grim day weather-wise, it was just as gloomy a game, with each side preferring to flood defences. The 3,469 crowd in Fr Tierney Park weren’t so much entertained as subjected to a match that plenty will readily forget.
But then it was in keeping with many of the counties’ previous league meetings. For Brian Cuthbert, Cork’s lack of a physical presence in the middle third contributed to them having to play catch-up.
“The biggest problem for us in the middle today was a lack of size and strength. They’re much bigger than us, the likes of Neil Gallagher around the middle. He really controlled the game and it was difficult winning our own kickouts there for a while.”
Rory Gallagher wasn’t best pleased with how Donegal almost lost their five-point lead. At the same time, he had no plans to read his players the riot act.
“We’re delighted with the way we ground it out. In the conditions and the type of weather that was out there today, it was always likely to come down to the wire. At the same time, 10 minutes into the second half, we were five points up.
“These narrow wins are good for character. I remember it was the same on this weekend in 2012 when we beat Cork 1-7 to 0-6. It’s about thin margins.
“We had an effort that dropped short and then at the other end the ball is in the net. Those things happen but you have to adapt to it and thankfully we did manage to adapt. Just about.”
The only time Cork led was in the second minute, when O’Neill scored a free.
After that, Donegal stuck over three points in four minutes, two courtesy of Martin O’Reilly, who helped himself to four points over the afternoon.
O’Neill added another free after a foul on Donncha O’Connor before Christy Toye and Kevin O’Driscoll swapped scores.
An O’Connor free following a foul on the aforementioned O’Driscoll saw the sides draw level but with such a breeze it should have been Cork in the ascendancy.
Ken O’Halloran found it difficult not to over-hit his mid-range kickouts, deliveries which worked so well in the victories over Dublin and Monaghan.
On the other hand, Durcan was only too happy to kick long into the wind where Gallagher, Hugh McFadden, Christy Toye and Odhran MacNiallais were viable targets.
A beautiful Mark Collins score in the 25th minute cancelled out O’Reilly’s third point and the sides remained tied at 0-5 apiece until the end of the half.
The writing might not have been on the wall for Cork at that stage but they left the field having spurned an opportunity which, as it transpired, came back to haunt them.
Scorers for Donegal: M O’Reilly (0-4); M Murphy (all frees), P McBrearty (1 free) (0-3 each); C Toye, O MacNiallais (free) (0-1 each).
Scorers for Cork: C O’Neill (0-4, frees); Tomás Clancy (1-0); K O’Driscoll, D O’Connor (free), M Collins, B Hurley (0-1 each).
Subs for Donegal: M McElhinney for H McFadden (ht); C McFadden for C Toye (57); A Thompson for K Lacey (60); E McGee for E Doherty (65); J Gibbons for P McBrearty (70+2).
Sent off: M Murphy (second yellow, 51).
Subs for Cork: C Dorman for J O’Sullivan (43); P Kerrigan for D O’Connor (47); P Kelly for C O’Driscoll (56); J Hayes for K O’Driscoll (65); D Óg Hodnett for J O’Rourke (66).
Another day, Michael Murphy’s sending off might have been it, but Donegal’s bright start to the second-half was the difference.
A day for the defences in difficult conditions.
As Brian Cuthbert revealed, just one touch of the ball in play for Colm O’Neill in the first-half.
Martin O’Reilly was top scorer from play but Paddy McBrearty bagged three points himself and offered more in general play.
Donegal played to their strengths, out-muscling Cork around the middle.
Joe McQuillan managed a dour game impressively.
Derby day for Cork next Sunday when Kerry come to Páirc Uí Rinn. Donegal welcome Monaghan to Letterkenny same afternoon.