No splitting Derrygonnelly and Cavan Gaels in Ulster club semi-final

Paul O'Connor of Cavan Gaels in action against Derrygonnelly's Michael Jones Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran in Clones

AIB Ulster Club Senior Football Championship semi-final: Derrygonnelly Harps (Fermanagh) 0-12 Cavan Gaels (Cavan) 0-12 (after extra-time)

AS if Slaughtneil weren’t already going to be big favourites heading into the Ulster Club final, their odds will shorten further as Cavan Gaels and Derrygonnelly Harps must do it all again next weekend after proving inseparable at St Tiernach’s Park yesterday.

It was a game that didn’t so much swing back and forth as amble side to side for most of the 80 plus minutes played in Clones, a stark contrast to Slaughtneil’s clinic in clinical finishing the previous evening.

The champions of Cavan and Fermanagh haven’t darkened the door of the Ulster semi-finals in some time and, in truth, both looked like strangers to this stage of the competition.

There was plenty of effort and endeavour on show, but a lack of quality and cool heads as neither could drag themselves across the line despite swapping spells in the ascendancy.

The Gaels looked to be pulling away at the start of the second half, reeling off five points on the spin inside a devastating nine minute spell to take a 0-10 to 0-6 lead.

However, the game changed completely when Levi Murphy was shown a 45th minute red card for lashing out at Derrygonnelly’s Neil Gallagher.

The raiding wing-back had been one of Cavan Gaels’ best performers up to that point, bursting forward to fire over two of the five points plundered after the break.

When he departed, followed 10 minutes later by Andrew Graham to a black card, Jason O’Reilly’s men completely lost their way – failing to register a single point from Murphy’s 40th minute effort until eight minutes into the first half of extra-time.

Therefore it is Derrygonnelly who perhaps have the greatest cause to consider what might have been, having battled their way back into the game before spurning several opportunities to take the game by the scruff.

Free-taker Paul Ward finished with five points to his name but had an uncharacteristic off day from placed balls, missing two scoreable frees in quick succession in the final 10 minutes of normal time before dropping short a potential match-winner in the dying seconds of extra-time.

“He was our top scorer today, but you’ll always get days where they don’t all go over for you. He was man enough to stand up and take them and unfortunately a couple that would normally go over didn’t,” said Harps joint manager Mick Glynn, who admitted being left with mixed emotions at the final whistle.

“Ah, there’s feelings of disappointment that we didn’t win the game – I feel we had the chances to win it – but also relief that we’re still in it. They hit the post a few minutes from the end and that could’ve put them a point ahead, so overall we’re happy we’re still in it.

“It was a big occasion for our club, it was our first time in an Ulster semi-final so obviously there would be some element of nerves. But I felt that, overall, we handled the occasion well and played well.”

There weren’t only nerves on the Derrygonnelly side either as Cavan Gaels were coming into the game on the back of their first win in Ulster since 2008 – and even that was a straightforward stroll past Lámh Dhearg.

Their cause wasn’t helped when the team announced before throw-in didn’t include experienced campaigner Michael Lyng.

The Cavan Gaels captain cut a frustrated figure watching from the sideline, and was only introduced from the bench towards the end of extra-time

“He has a niggling injury and we didn’t just want to chance him,” said O’Reilly.

“Even bringing him on was risky – the first ball he could’ve went straight away. We had nothing to lose. We didn’t want to go out of Ulster and there was maybe six minutes left.”

Lyng’s replacement, Declan Meehan, slotted in seamlessly and was at the centre of most of the Gaels’ better play early on as they took a 0-3 to 0-1 lead, Niall Smith burning past Shane McGullion before fisting over to open their account, followed by scores from Andrew Graham and Martin Dunne.

As expected, Mickey Jones was handed the brief of shackling Seanie Johnston – so influential against Lamh Dhearg – but the pair spent more time around the centre of the field as Johnston acted almost as a third midfielder, outside of occasional stints in his more familiar post on the edge of the square.

Derrygonnelly eventually started to warm to the task, Ward making no mistake with two frees, and then profiting from an excellent fetch and lay-off from Conall Jones to tie the game up.

Despite the odd spilled ball – the low winter sun didn’t help matters – and misplaced pass, you could really see what it meant to the Fermanagh men and they produced four excellent blocks to send balls out for 45s, none of which were converted.

Two of the many Joneses, this time brothers Ryan and Garvan, struck to open up a two-point gap and, after points from Johnston and Dunne, a Ward free signalled the end of a fairly pedestrian half of football, Derrygonnelly leading by the minimum.

But the Ernemen’s advantage was wiped out within minutes of the restart as Cavan Gaels clicked into gear, a Dunne free followed by an excellent Murphy score after a cute pass from Johnston picked a hole in the Harps defence.

Paul O’Connor added another before a mishit Ward free ended with the ball going over the Derrygonnelly bar seconds later, Smith playing the ball forward from deep, O’Connor laying off for Dunne to make it 0-9 to 0-6 with 38 minutes gone.

When Murphy struck again a minute later, thoughts started to drift towards whether Cavan Gaels would be able to put it up to Slaughtneil in the final, such was their level of control.

But when Murphy left Gallagher in a heap on the ground after a bit of to and fro between the pair, the game changed completely.

“Ah here, I got a look at it… the two of them were at it and it was kind of a back of the hand,” said Gaels boss O’Reilly.

“You get away with that at club, but Ulster club… he’ll be disappointed with it as well, he’s not that type of player.”

Suddenly it was Derrygonnelly’s turn to seize the initiative and they battled back to 0-10 apiece, Ward – showing some nerve to bury the memories of those bad misses minutes previous – sending the game into extra-time with a last gasp free.

Both management teams emptied the bench in the extra 20 as already tired legs began to ache, and a nervy first period of extra-time produced just one point each as the potential cost of losing started to weigh heavily on minds and bodies

It was the same in the second half, Ward edging Derrygonnelly ahead a minute in, only for sub Darragh Sexton to bring the sides level again.

But this spell was more about chances missed than taken with another Gaels sub, Sean Higgins, seeing an effort come back off the upright and into the safety of Harps hands, before Ward spurned that late opportunity to make himself the hero and set up a final date with the all-conquering Emmet’s on November 26.

Instead they will discover today where and when they will renew acquaintances with Cavan Gaels next weekend.

“We didn’t perform well, made a lot of mistakes,” said O’Reilly.

“It’s hard enough to win with 15, never mind 14. We showed good character but we didn’t perform the way we wanted to on the day.

“There’s lots of things to work on for the next day.”

Cavan Gaels: C Flynn; L Fortune, N Murray, K Meehan; S Murray, B Fortune, L Murphy (0-2); P Graham R Maloney-Derham; N Smith (0-1), D Meehan (0-1), A Graham (0-1); P O’Connor (0-1), S Johnston (0-1, free), M Dunne (0-4, 0-2 frees).

Subs: S Higgins for A Graham (55), K Donohoe for D Meehan (60, extra-time), S Fitzsimons for N Smith (68), M Lyng for O’Connor (76)

Black cards: P Graham replaced by V Coyle (37), S Murray replaced by D Sexton (60, extra-time – 0-1)

Yellow cards: A Graham (25)

Red cards: L Murphy (45)

Derrygonnelly Harps: D Feely; Shane McGullion, Lee Jones, M Jones; N Gallagher, E McHugh, G McGinley; R Jones (0-1), G Jones (0-2); K Cassidy, P Ward (0-5, 0-3 frees), D Cassidy (0-1); G McKenna (0-2, 0-1 free), Leigh Jones, C Jones (0-1, free). Subs: Stephen McGullion for K Cassidy (32), A Gallagher for Lee Jones (43), K Cassidy for Leigh Jones (52), Lee Jones for N Gallagher (63, extra-time), Leigh Jones for Stephen McGullion (72), Stephen McGullion for Gallagher (77)

Yellow cards: Lee Jones (11), K Cassidy (22), D Cassidy (49), G McKenna (63)

Referee: P Hughes (Armagh)

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