GAA Football

Donegal overcome sticky Fermanagh to set up showdown with Tyrone

Eoin Donnelly and Michael Murphy contest a kick-out at Brewster park on Sunday Picture by Philip Walsh
From Brendan Crossan at Brewster Park

Ulster SFC quarter-final: Fermanagh 0-9 Donegal 0-15

THIS year’s absorbing Ulster Championship was bound to dip at some stage. Many predicted it would sag on May 25 in Enniskillen. And they were right.

The 10, 447 supporters at a sun-drenched Brewster Park yesterday afternoon went there more in hope than in expectation that they would be treated to another pulsating game of football in the provincial series.

But Fermanagh’s gameplan isn’t a spectator’s sport. It’s a grim scientific experiment that needs the coalescence of their opponents to basically implode.

Last year’s Ulster final between the two sides was a more straightforward affair for eventual winners Donegal. A couple of early goals from Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher and Ryan McHugh and the Ernemen were dust. To stay in the game, Fermanagh couldn’t afford a repeat.

And credit to Rory Gallagher’s side, they were competitive right up until the closing stages of yesterday’s first round provincial showdown.

Within the opening seconds, this clash settled into a familiar pattern. Fermanagh’s entire team funnelled back into their own 45.

For the opening 17 minutes, Fermanagh’s defence was like a spider’s web. They’d entrapped Donegal’s fleet-footed attackers, forcing errors out of them but they managed to counter-attack themselves to grab the first two scores of the day.

The hugely impressive Ultan Kelm, making his Championship debut for Fermanagh, raced down the left flank to fist over before Sean Quigley converted an 11th-minute free.

Jonny Cassidy, another Fermanagh debutant, should have put the home side three up after 15 minutes but the tenacious corner-back dropped his effort short.

Nevertheless, Fermanagh’s plan was working. They’d registered a couple of scores and kept Donegal’s much-vaunted attack out.

The returning Patrick McBrearty tried his luck from distance but was off-target with two early attempts – much to the delight of the home crowd and his marker Lee Cullen.

But all Donegal needed was one score to prove to Fermanagh – and indeed to themselves as much as anything else – that they could score against a heavily fortified defence and that they didn’t necessarily need early goals to beat them.

They stuck to the process. They didn’t kick the ball. And they didn’t rush up the field either. They accepted their hosts would not leave themselves short at the back.

So Donegal put their faith in a patient possession game, which at times seemed to lack tempo. It was no surprise Jamie Brennan’s 17th minute opener for Donegal came after a long period of patient play.

The Bundoran man’s point lifted a weight off the visitors’ shoulders and Declan Bonner’s men were up and running.

It was the kind of game scores would be hard to come by, but Donegal managed the next three between the 20th and 29th minutes – two McBrearty frees and a fine left foot finish from Leo McLoone – to forge ahead 0-4 to 0-2.

Fermanagh, though, were hard to shake off. Ryan Jones and excellent wing-forward Ciaran Corrigan levelled the tie before Jason McGee gave Donegal a 0-5 to 0-4 half-time lead. 

Despite trailing at the interval, Fermanagh must have been content enough. Young Jonny Cassidy didn’t give McHugh room to weave his magic. 

Declan McCusker sacrificed his own game to stop Eoghan Gallagher’s raids from deep. Che Cullen was breaking even with Michael Murphy up that point.

Fermanagh’s defensive sweeper James McMahon had snuffed out a lot of Donegal attacks while Ultan Kelm and Ciaran Corrigan were dangerous on the break.

Fermanagh were well in the game – but they were hit by two sucker punches at the start of the second half.

Jamie Brennan, who was beginning to exert more influence against Fermanagh’s Kane Connor, grabbed his second of four points from play before Michael Murphy began to school Che Cullen in the art of movement and finishing.

In the 39th minute, Murphy pulled the Fermanagh full-back out to the flank rather than clog up the middle.

When the ball was eventually spirited to the Donegal captain, he arced his run and thumped over a brilliant point from 45 metres to put the visitors three up.

With very little backlift and no space, Brennan popped over another score to cancel out Kelm’s effort for Fermanagh moments earlier.

But the home side’s chances weren’t helped when free-taker Sean Quigley limped out of the game with a hamstring injury after 44 minutes.

The mercurial Roslea ace was on the periphery of this Championship clash but his absence would hurt Fermanagh.

Conall Jones took over free-taking duties and although he converted his first one in the 53rd minute he scuffed an easier effort six minutes later that would have made it a one-point game.

Just as Jones’s close-range free landed in Shaun Patton’s grateful arms, Ryan McMenamin, Fermanagh’s assistant manager, slammed the water bottle he was carrying to the ground and Rory Gallagher spun away in disgust. It was a costly miss.

Just as all good champions do, Donegal made Fermanagh pay by registering the next two scores through Ciaran Thompson and Michael Langan – both from distance – putting them 0-11 to 0-8 in front.

The Ernemen had emptied the tank at that point and despite the defiance shown by substitute Barry Mulrone, the home side ran out of gas.

McBrearty, making his first appearance for his county since suffering a cruciate injury in last year’s Ulster final, tamed Lee Cullen with three second-half points, while Brennan edged him and Stephen McMenamin out for the man-of-the-match award with some excellent finishes.

All six Donegal forwards scored from play too with second-half substitute Frank McGlynn adding sickening pace to their attack in the last quarter.

Fermanagh’s game-plan was shown to be still too weighted in favour of defence especially when they’re chasing a game.

Apart from Daniel Teague’s blocked effort late on, Fermanagh didn’t really pose a goal threat in the closing stages.

Despite their lack of shooters, no-one will want to draw Fermanagh in the Qualifiers, while Tyrone will provide a completely different and more demanding puzzle to Donegal on June 8.

Fermanagh: 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 frees), S Quigley (0-1 free) 

Subs: B Mulrone (0-1) for D Teague (h/t), P McCusker for S Quigley (44), T Clarke for K Connor (61), R Lyons for A Breen (65), D Teague for D McCusker (67)

Yellow cards: R Jones (10), C Cullen (22), D McCusker (24), D Teague (35)

Donegal: 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, 0-2 frees), M Murphy (0-2), M Langan (0-1)

Subs: F McGlynn for D O Baoill (49), N O’Donnell for L McLoone (55), E McHugh for P McGrath (61), E Doherty for R McHugh (71), P Brennan for C Thompson (73)

Yellow cards: R McHugh (37), P McGrath (46), S McMenamin (65)

Referee: J Quillan (Cavan)

Attendance: 10,447

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