Donegal 0-12 Down 0-9
Dogged Donegal did as much as they needed to qualify for a third successive Ulster final, grinding out a result against a stubborn Down side at Kingspan Breffni Park.
Finishers supreme Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden were not at their best, but nailed the vital scores, each with a five points haul, that pushed the All-Ireland champions into another provincial decider.
They will take on either Monaghan or Cavan next month bidding to become the first team to win the Anglo-Celt Cup three times in a row since Armagh completed a treble in 2006.
Down will enter the Qualifiers with raised expectations of an extended run following a worthy showing in front of a crowd of 21,715 in Cavan town. They pushed the Sam Maguire Cup holders all the way, and with a little more composure at vital stages, could have chiselled a result out of this one.
Donegal went ahead with a Murphy free in the sixth minute, and as they typically put the man in possession under pressure, they carved the opening which gave their skipper the opportunity double the lead with a delightful score from play.
Down took a lead from the strategy that has served Donegal so well this past three seasons, dropping as many as 14 players inside their own 45 metre line, but Benny Coulter was left isolated up front, leaving him to battle against a clutch of defenders, including the battle-hardened McGee brothers.
Down finally got off the mark in the 15th minute when Donal O’Hare converted a free following a foul on Coulter, and a second conversion from the Burren man halved the deficit.
Down were guilty of careless use of possession, and were punished when Murphy and Paddy McBrearty slotted over points for a 0-6 to 0-2 advantage on 22 minutes.
Coulter continued to plough a lone furrow up front, but managed to hold the ball up long enough to offload to Mark Poland, who slotted over a neat point.
Now just two points separated the sides, and Down were defending much more effectively at this stage, holding their opponents scoreless for the last 16 minutes of the first half.
Donegal led by 0-6 to 0-4 at the break, but with a gusting wind in their backs in the second half, pulled further clear with a Rory Kavanagh point, despite the los through injury of Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn.
Declan Rooney and Peter Turley provided stubborn resistance at the back for Down, and Benny McArdle maintained a close watch on a subdued Murphy, but McFadden exploited a lapse in concentration to push Donegal’s lead out to three at the beginning of the final quarter.
However, the Mourne men remained very much in touch, and centre back Turley led the charge that led to another O’Hare score. It was only their second point from play, but it trimmed the gap back to two.
A rare moment of supreme quality saw McFadden steer over a long range beauty, but again, Down cancelled out the score when substitute Jerome Johnston nailed one with his first touch.
James McCartan’s men were still very much in touch, and they sensed that the champions were vulnerable, unforced errors inviting Down to push forward in the closing stages.
But they could only manage a converted free from Danny Savage, and when Murphy and McFadden both thumped over marvellous long range frees, both from around the 50 metre mark, Donegal had the finish line in sight.
Donegal: P Durcan, P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee, Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson, R Bradley, R Kavanagh (0-1), David Walsh, L McLoone, M McHugh, P McBrearty (0-1), M Murphy (0-5, 4f), C McFadden (0-5, 2f).
Subs: M O’Reilly for David Walsh, M MCElhinney for Bradley, R McHugh for McGlynn, R Wherity for McLoone, D Molloy for McBrearty.
Down: B McVeigh, D McCartan, B McArdle, K Quinn, D Rooney, P Turley, R Boyle, K King, K McKernan, A Rogers, M Poland (0-1), N Madine, C Laverty, B Coulter, D O’Hare (0-6, 5f).
Subs: R Mallon for Quinn, J Johnston (0-1) for Coulter, D Savage (0-1, f) for Madine
Referee: E Kinsella (Laois).