Antrim came as rank outsiders and after a promising enough start when the away side might’ve grabbed a goal or even two, Donegal reeled in their guests and won at a canter.
In the end, it was more than comfortable as Rory Gallagher’s team hadn’t the need to even to get to fourth gear or perhaps not even third.
A 16-point win was Donegal just flexing their muscles, with the heat in the kitchen of the Ulster SFC surely going to rise a notch or two when they meet Derry or Tyrone in the provincial semi-final on June 18.
Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Ciaran Thompson, Cian Mulligan, Jamie Brennan, Jason McGee, Michael Carroll, and Caolan Ward all started in the championship for the first time.
Michael Langan was also a debutant having come off a substitutes’ bench, where he was joined for late cameos by the vastly more experienced Karl Lacey, Martin McElhinney, Patrick McBrearty, Eoin McHugh and Mark McHugh.
A Donegal goal three minutes before half-time, moments after Antrim missed out on one at the other end, sparked the beginning of the end for the team managed by Frank Fitzsimons.
With a 20-minute delay as a consequence of the curtain-raising minor fixture beforehand going to extra-time and so many inexperienced players in the Donegal camp, there was a nervy enough start for Donegal.
It was at this stage of the game where Antrim enjoyed their most fruitful spell. After 13 minutes, it was 0-4 to 0-4 with Tomas McCann and CJ McGourty on the mark.
And although the panic button wasn’t within grasp of the locals among the 10,083 in attendance, they might’ve thought things would turn out to be just a little tighter than many had predicted beforehand.
In attempting to build to build a more expansive game, Donegal are not quite as squeakily tight at the back. Antrim might’ve benefited not once but twice.
On 20 minutes, McGourty spun into space and drove past both Donegal goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley but also past his far post. A goal then would’ve put the visitors 1-4 to 0-6 in front.
Against the wind, Donegal did find bother with their coordinates occasionally, although in Ciaran Thompson they’d someone who was in tune with the conditions right from the off. Thompson would score four first half points.
Behind him, Antrim passed up on a replica chance in front of goal on 32 minutes. This time the diagonal ball was delivered by Conor Hamill and Matthew Fitzpatrick, in space and in a promising position, could only shoot wide.
That miss was certainly still rummaging around the minds of the Antrim support when, at the other end from the very next attack, Donegal showed their quality. Michael Murphy and Michael Carroll linked up and the former set Jamie Brennan free into an avenue of opportunity down the left.
Brennan cut in to increase his angle with the precision of a mathematician and speed of a slalom skier, planting the ball into the bottom corner for the opening goal. With confidence running through his veins, he then added a point and Donegal had a 1-8 to 0-6 half-time lead.
That was the end of the flattery though as Donegal, without ever breaking sweat, simply tightened the noose on Antrim. Murphy popped over five points and they helped develop a gulf in the third quarter.
The second goal came from the most unlikeliest of sources. Paddy McGrath debuted for Donegal back in 2010 and in seven years the corner-back had only ever scored two points.
He managed to sidestep Chris Kerr, the Fermanagh goalkeeper, and prod home from close range after Ryan McHugh provided the final pass with McElhinney and Jason McGee also chipping in at various locations. So, with eight minutes to go, Donegal were 2-14 to 0-7 in front.
A third goal came from McBrearty came in the second minute of injury time. The substitute thundered past Kerr having been found by a McElhinney pass down the Donegal right. Antrim did at least manage a consolation goal with the last kick of the game, Conor Small opening his body to angle a shot into McGinley’s top corner.
When Donegal overcame Antrim on a 1-10 to 0-7 scoreline back in 2011 in Jim McGuinness’s first game in charge, it marked the beginning of something.
Gallagher was Donegal’s assistant manager that afternoon and although he’s been in charge for two years now, the recent player turnover will be something that will stand to Donegal for a long time.
Whatever about the long-term, they’ll be a match for anyone in Ulster in the short-term.
MA McGinley; P McGrath 1-0, N McGee, E Gallagher; M O’Reilly, F McGlynn 0-1, C Ward; J McGee, M Murphy 0-6, 5f; M Carroll, C Thompson 0-4, 3f, R McHugh; C Mulligan , H McFadden 0-1, J Brennan 1-1.
E McHugh for Mulligan (45), K Lacey 0-1 for Carroll (50), P McBrearty 1-2, 2f for Brennan (52), M McElhinney for Thompson (57), M McHugh 0-1 for Ward (60), M Langan 0-2 for McGlynn (64).
C Kerr; C Hamill, P Gallagher, P Healy; P McBride, D Lynch, P McAleer; S McVeigh, S Beatty 0-1; R McCann, M Fitzpatrick, M Sweeney; CJ McGourty 0-6f, B Bradley, T McCann 0-2.
K O’Boyle for Fitzpatrick (35), J Dowling for R.McCann (41), C Small 1-0 for Bradley (52), D Nugent for McVeigh (57), N Delargey for O’Boyle (67).
P Neilan (Roscommon)