Donegal wriggled free of Fermanagh’s blanket of stubborn defensive resistance to find the spaces at a claustrophobic Brewster Park and pick off sublime second half scores on their way to the Ulster SFC semi-finals.
A mouth-watering clash with Tyrone awaits the defending provincial champions, but in front of a crowd of 10,447 in Enniskillen, they were made to work hard and display untold patience before they finally wore down a defiant opponent and pushed for home.
Paddy McBrearty made a triumphant return from last year’s season-ending injury, hitting five points on his first appearance of the year, while skipper Michael Murphy was, as usual, the beating heart of the Donegal team and the game’s most influential figure.
Shadowed wherever he went by Che Cullen, Murphy scored just twice but had a hand in the majority of his side’s hard-earned fifteen points.
With 15 players inside their own ’45, Fermanagh smothered Donegal’s early attacking thrusts, and broke with the pace of Ultan Kelm, the wing back punching over the opening point after four minutes.
The returning McBrearty, on a first appearance since last year’s Ulster final, struggled to find the range, hitting two wides, with Michael Langan also twice failing to find the posts as the provincial champions were forced into shots from distance.
The suffocation continued and the frustration grew as the half progressed, moving into the second quarter with Donegal still registering zero on the score-board.
Jamie Brennan final got them off the mark, and McBrearty tapped over a free to level on 20 minutes.
The Kilcar man added another from a placed ball, and after Leo McLoone had made it 0-4 to 0-2, the Erne men were forced into a more adventurous approach.
Ryan Jones and Ciaran Corrigan both landed scores, but despite the defensive heroics of James McMahon, Donegal were able to work the space for Jason McGee to launch a spectacular score from wide on the right wing, sending Declan Bonner’s men in at the break with a slender 0-5 to 0-4 lead.
Murphy’s influence increased as the game opened up, the skipper drifting wide to add width to his team’s approach, and he thumped over an inspirational score to stretched the lead to seven.
The Erne men kept in touch with points from Kelm and substitute Barry Mulrone, but Donegal moved the ball from flank to flank for Brennan to curl over his third of the afternoon.
McBrearty was beginning to enjoy himself as he gradually restored his golden touch on the ball and fine-tuned that deadly left foot, curling over a trademark point, after Ciaran Corrigan had narrowed the gap to just one at the end of the third quarter.
It was moving time for Donegal, and they exploited the extra space that was beginning to appear in front of them,m with Ciaran Thompson and Michael Langan both on target to make kit 0-12 to 0-8.
Fermanagh were squeezed out of the game by an experienced Donegal defence that now had the seasoned Frank McGlynn within its ranks, and they managed just one point in the final 20 minutes of play, a Conall Jones free.
They needed a goal, but managed just a half-chance, which saw Neil McGee charge down Daniel Teague’s shot, and the Qualifiers were looming for the Erne men as they were exposed at the back for McBrearty, Murphy and Brennan, with his fourth, to drive home the advantage.
J McGrath; J Cassidy, C Cullen, L Cullen; U Kelm (0-2), J McMahon, K Connor; E Donnelly, R Jones (0-1); D Teague, A Breen, C Corrigan (0-2); D McCusker, C Jones (0-2, 2f), S Quigley (0-1, f).
B Mulrone (0-1) for Teague (h-t), P McCusker for Quigley (43), T Clarke for Connor (60), R Lyons for Breen (65), Teague for McCusker (67)
S Patton: P McGrath, N McGee, S McMenamin; R McHugh, D O Baoill, E Ban Gallagher; H McFadden, J McGee (0-1); C Thompson (0-1), L McLoone (0-1), J Brennan (0-4); P McBrearty (0-5, 3f), M Murphy (0-2), M Langan (0-1).
F McGlynn for O Baoill (49), N O’Donnell for McLoone (54), E McHugh for McGrath (60), E Doherty for R McHugh (70), P Brennan for Thompson (73)
J McQuillan (Cavan).