“We would have taken your arm off for it”: Donegal boss Jim McGuinness delighted to set up semi-final against Galway

All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Donegal 1-23 Louth 0-18

Ryan McHugh of Donegal kicks a point despite the efforts of Tommy Durnin of Louth.
Ryan McHugh of Donegal kicks a point despite the efforts of Tommy Durnin of Louth. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

ONLY one moment really unsettled Donegal manager Jim McGuinness yesterday afternoon – and that came in the post-match media conference.

The Glenties man looked startled on learning that he and his team didn’t need to rush off to watch Derry v Kerry as Galway would definitely be their semi-final opponents.

The complicated combinations of previous meetings affecting potential pairings were far more head-wrecking than anything Louth put up against the Ulster Champions.

McGuinness quickly joked that he and his team could go home early – that wasn’t quite the case against Louth, but the favourites were always in command against ‘the wee county’.

Indeed Donegal were ruthlessly efficient, registering only three wides, a tally that Louth reached very early on, and tripled overall.

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

McGuinness was delighted to progress, and also with that scoring power, saying: “Obviously we’re extremely happy to be in the semi-final. At the beginning of the year if we’d been told that we would have taken your arm off for it.

“For the game itself, to post 1-23 in a quarter-final is something we would be very happy with as well.”

Donegal may have been bridging a decade-long gap to reach the last four, but they looked absolutely assured of doing so from the first whistle to the last.

Louth made it a one-point game late in the first half, but that was as good as it got for them, and even then Donegal swiftly pulled clear again to leave it 0-11 to 0-8 at half-time.

In some ways this was a very different Donegal from a decade ago – with 1-21 scored from play, and 1-9 of that from defenders.

Their opening scorer was familiar from the famous semi-final success against Dublin in 2014 – Ryan McHugh – and Donegal had another speedy scoring defender in the form of Peadar Mogan, his side’s top scorer on the day with 0-5.

Donegal reeled off five points inside the opening 10 minutes, McHugh and Mogan attacking from distance to score, joined on the scoreboard by forwards Oisin Gallen and Conor O’Donnell.

Their opponents’ only reply came from outstanding midfielder Tommy Durnin, the first of four from play by him. Otherwise, though, Louth understandably looked nervy, unsure, taking a split-second too long to make moves or take shots in their first ever All-Ireland SFC quarter-final.

Louth manager Ger Brennan on the line against Donegal during the National Football League match played at Fr Tierney Park in Ballyshannon on Sunday 3rd March 2024. Picture Margaret McLaughlin
Louth manager Ger Brennan Picture: Margaret McLaughlin (Margaret McLaughlin Photography )

Louth boss Ger Brennan was able to construct an amusing analogy, pointing to their lack of experience at this level, even though they’ve played often at Croke Park:

“I remember when you’re younger and you’re trying to get into the local nightclub – and the bouncers say ‘regulars only’. How do you become a regular if you don’t get in?

“The fact the lads have got into the All-Ireland quarter-finals here, that means they have been given the opportunity. They had to fight for it, obviously, and they’ll be hungry for more next year. They want to get in more often.”

Unfortunately for them Donegal never opened that door even a crack, with Louth always chasing the game, after starting slowly.

Their cause wasn’t helped in the 13th minute when captain Sam Mulroy, dropping deep, clashed heads with Conall McKeever, who had been detailed to mark McHugh. The collided while trying to gather a loose ball in their own half and McKeever had to go off. The Louth skipper continued, despite looking a little groggy.

To their credit, Louth were not shaken by that, their performance steadily improving, notching four of the next five scores.

Admittedly that scoring streak started after Donegal threatened the opening goal in the 22nd minute, when Gallen sent Mogan through, but goalkeeper Niall McDonnell parried his shot and a lightning quick counter-attack ended with a Ryan Burns point.

Donegal were curtailing the in-form Craig Lennon, but he burst forward to make it 7-6, and twice more only a point separated the sides, that upsurge looking to be a consequence of Louth at last pressing the opposition kick-outs.

The problem for the men in red was they never managed to draw level, their hopes not helped by them continuing to rack up wides. In contrast, Donegal carried a scoring threat from all over, from 11 different players.

There remained an ebb and flow, with Donegal going seven ahead, 0-18 to 0-11, then Louth doggedly nabbing three in a row.

A Louth goal then would have made this match very interesting – but instead it was Donegal who netted, with almost an hour on the clock.

Captain Paddy McBrearty’s powerful hand-pass released Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher and his transfer was flicked on to McBrearty, who had continued an angled run. The Kilcar man’s low shot came off the left-hand upright and across the face of goal and Gallagher raced in to finish at the far post.

Eoghan Ban Gallagher in action for Donegal during their draw with Galway in the Allianz Football League Division One match in Letterkenny on Sunday Picture: Margaret McLaughlin
Eoghan Ban Gallagher in action for Donegal during their draw with Galway in the Allianz Football League Division One match in Letterkenny last year Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

Donegal could relax after that, although they didn’t, and nor did McGuinness in his analysis, noting that his side conceded too much in what was an unusually open contest:

“Defensively we conceded 0-18 and Louth looked threatening and dangerous at times so there are areas we have to look at, but the important thing is to progress and once you do that you have a chance to sort things out and make them better for the next day.”

Still, although seeing off Louth wasn’t easy, of course, it was ultimately comfortable. The game finished in similar fashion to how it started, with further points from Mogan and McHugh. Even though Louth sub Ciaran Byrne fired a rapid brace, Donegal replacement Jamie Brennan had the final say.

Whether or not Donegal have a say in the final, unlike McGuinness’s first season in charge of 2011, remains to be seen.

McGuinness will now come up against his great friend Padraic Joyce, the Galway manager, with whom he won a Sigerson Cup for IT Tralee in 1998.

Perhaps an unwanted match-up, but McGuinness put a positive spin on the situation, saying: “I am looking forward to that because I know one of us will progress to the final.

“The radio silence might kick in for a wee while but I might send him a cheeky text tonight - apart from that I think that will be it for a fortnight.”

Donegal: S Patton; E Gallagher (1-0), B McCole, P Mogan (0-5); R McHugh (0-2), C McGonagle, C Moore (0-2); M Langan (0-3), C Thompson (0-2); C O’Donnell (0-2), S O’Donnell, D O Baoill; P McBrearty (capt.) (0-1 mark), O Gallen (0-4, 0-1 free), N O’Donnell.

Substitutes: A Doherty (0-1) for N O’Donnell (h-t); C McColgan for O Baoill (46); J Mac Cealibhui for C O’Donnell (49); J Brennan (0-1) for McBrearty (59); H McFadden for S O’Donnell (66).

Louth: N McDonnell; D McKenny, D Campbell, D Corcoran; B Duffy, A Williams, C Lennon (0-1); T Durnin (0-4), C Grimes; L Grey, C Murphy, C McKeever; C Keenan, S Mulroy (capt.) (0-6, 0-3 frees), R Burns (0-2).

Substitutes: L Jackson (0-1) for Burns (43); P Matthews for Grey (43); T Jackson (0-1) for Murphy (43); C Byrne (0-2) for Williams (67); T McDonnell for Corcoran (71).

Blood subs: C Early (0-1) for McKeever (inj., 17-end).

Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).