GAA Football

Donegal reach Ulster decider and send Cavan to Tailteann Cup with late double in semi-final thriller

Late goals from Conor O'Donnell and Paddy McBrearty saw Donegal see off a determined Cavan challenge at Clones. Pic Philip Walsh
Andy Watters

Ulster Senior Football Championship quarter-final: Donegal 2-16 Cavan 0-16

From Andy Watters at Clones

TEN minutes left and the game was in the melting pot. With Paddy Lynch and James Smith outstanding, Cavan had been the better team in the first half but they didn't take their goal chances – Smith hit the bar, Gearoid McKiernan was denied a penalty - and Donegal, despite living on scraps, somehow went in level at the break.

The Tir Chonaill men had been better in the second half but three points from Gearoid McKiernan had hauled them back into it and the game had reached the hour mark when Jamie Brennan tried his luck from 30 yards.

Off balance, his shot soared high into the air and dropped into the Donegal square. Michael Murphy made a nuisance of himself as Killian Brady and Raymond Galligan jumped to clear it.

They both got a fist to the ball but it dropped to Conor O'Donnell, just on as a sub, and his first time shot skipped along the Clones grass and into the back of the net.

It was always going to be uphill from there for Cavan but they fought on until another high ball was fumbled in their square and this time it was Paddy McBrearty who lashed it home.

Those breaks were the difference in a terrific battle yesterday and Donegal's victory means they march on to another Ulster final while luckless Cavan drop into the Tailteann Cup.

If Mickey Graham can keep his panel together, Cavan will be among the favourites to win the second tier competition but that was cold comfort for them yesterday, particularly after they had started so well.

Lynch came into yesterday's game with eight points against Antrim under his belt and the semi-final was only seconds old when he turned Brendan McCole and lashed a shot over the bar to open the scoring.

Then McKiernan burst onto Cormac O'Reilly's pass and was bundled over by Hugh McFadden but referee Conor Lane waved away appeals for a penalty.

Donegal had to scrap for every inch of Cavan territory they gained. The darting runs of Eoghan Ban Gallagher did earn frees for Murphy and McBrearty but James Smith was causing their defence all sorts of trouble. He was fouled and Lynch converted the free to send Cavan ahead again and then Thomas Galligan's thunderous hit on Hugh McFadden stopped Donegal in their tracks. Again Smith was fouled, again Lynch scored and it was 0-4 to 0-2 after 13 action-packed minutes.

But Donegal hung in there with two of the next four scores. Ciaran Thompson and Jamie Brennan, who found his form yesterday after drawing a blank against Armagh, cancelled out points from Smith and Lynch who was giving McCole a torrid time.

McBrearty, who once again came alive in the second half, had a sniff of goal but fumbled the ball. He was tripped as he bent his back to gather it and Murphy converted the free but then Raymond Galligan's re-start soared over the midfield and McKiernan grabbed it on the Donegal 45-yard line.

He passed to Thomas Galligan who scored a brilliant point off his right boot but his second was even better. The 2020 Allstar lost the ball, won it again, then muscled his way through four defenders and scored off his left to send Cavan 0-8 to 0-5 ahead.

Brennan and Murphy replied for Donegal but Cavan had the bit between their teeth. Lynch kicked his fifth point and, after Conor Moynagh had dispossessed Michael Langan, they burst forward again.

Cian Madden spotted a mismatch between James Smith and Ryan McHugh at the far post and lofted the ball toward them. Smith grabbed it and smashed in a shot that Shaun Patton did brilliantly to fingertip onto the bar.

Donegal made the most of their slice of luck. McBrearty cut in from right and Faulkner caught him with a high elbow. Luckily for him the card he was shown was yellow and McBrearty kicked the free and then set up Brennan whose first-time punch meant Cavan had only parity to show for all their efforts at the break.

Donegal would have been delighted with that as they made their way down the tunnel and they came out for the second half with a few tweaks to the match-ups and changed their system by operating with a full-forward that stretched the Cavan defence.

James Smith briefly sent Cavan back in front but points from Peadar Mogan, Shane O'Donnell and two from Murphy meant Donegal got their noses three points in front for the first time in the game.

Another score from the rampaging Smith and McKiernan's first left one in it and then Caolan McGonagle, who added energy to the Donegal midfield after he emerged early in the second half, raced through the middle to leave it 0-14 to 0-12.

McKiernan wiped off the deficit with two points in as many minutes and so it was all-square at 14 points apiece with 15 minutes ago.

Having thrown everything they had at Donegal, it began to look like Cavan were feeling the pace but the Tir Chonaill men still had more to give. McBrearty, who hadn't scored from play, took Murphy's pass and scored a superb point from the right wing.

Then, with an hour gone, Brennan had a go. The ball went up and up and then dropped into the square. Murphy got underneath it, causing panic in the Cavan defence. Killian Brady and goalkeeper Galligan jumped and got hands to the ball but couldn't clear it and O'Donnell gleefully tucked the ball into the net with a sidefoot finish.

Yes, there was luck involved but Donegal made their luck.

McBrearty and Raymond Galligan swapped frees and the result was still undecided until three minutes from time. This time Niall O'Donnell had a go, another Hail Mary effort and again Cavan failed to deal with it.

Killian Clarke jumped but fumbled the ball and it bounced off McBrearty's back and dropped at his feet. He picked it up and drilled it into the net and that was it for plucky Cavan.

Donegal even had time to give Neil McGee a run out. Tir Chonaill fans roared with delight at the sight of their Gweedore talisman and they roared louder still when the whistle confirmed their passage to an eighth Ulster final in the last 10 years.

Cavan: R Galligan (0-1 free)v; J McLoughlin, P Faulkner, K Brady; L Fortune, K Clarke, C Brady; T Galligan (0-2), J Smith (0-3, 0-1 Mark); G Smith (0-1), G McKiernan (0-3, 0-1 free), C Moynagh; Cormac O'Reilly, P Lynch (0-6, 0-3 frees), C Madden

Subs: M Reilly for Cormac O'Reilly (45), O Kiernan for Madden (55), Caoimhin O'Reilly for K Brady (65)

Yellow card: Faulkner (28), Clarke (62), T Galligan (70)

Donegal: S Patton; C Ward, B McCole, S McMenamin; R McHugh, E Ban Gallagher, P Mogan (0-1); H McFadden, J McGee; C Thompson (0-1), S O'Donnell (0-1), M Langan; P McBrearty (1-4, 0- frees), M Murphy (0-5, 0- frees), J Brennan (0-3)

Subs: C McGonagle (0-1) for McFadden (36), O McFadden-Ferry for Ward (50), C O'Donnell (1-0) for Thompson (59), N O'Donnell for S O'Donnell (65), A Doherty for Brennan (68), N McGee for Mogan (70)

Yellow card: Murphy (62)

Referee: Conor Lane (Cork)

Attendance: 15,523

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GAA Football