It was the victory everyone expected but not quite achieved in the manner pre-match predictions perceived it would be.
Donegal were supposed to be cannon-fodder for a Derry team anxious to get over their Christy Ring disappointment.
Even more so when you consider Ray Durack’s team suffered a number of late withdrawals to further weaken a team which had already been billed too weak to trouble Tom McLean’s Oak Leafers.
But trouble them is exactly what Donegal did.
In a nutshell, Derry had the better hurlers and were the better team but Donegal‘s attitude was better. In the end, that attitude was not enough to bridge the gulf in class between the teams despite a brave bid.
The Derry manager will be alarmed at the concession of five goals and the truth is, Donegal could have scored more. Yet at no time did Derry look like losing this match.
They led from the first minute to last but there was precious little else of a positive nature for the home team to look back on. Despite pre-match promises of treating the game with a focused championship mentality, Derry heads were elsewhere for large portions of the match.
It is a dangerous mindset against any opposition and while it proved just enough against Donegal, a repeat performance next Sunday in Owenbeg against old rivals Down will not bring a similarly happy outcome.
In fairness, this was the classic no-win game for Derry. Trounce the Division 2B men and no one bats an eye-lid; anything else and it’s less than satisfactory.
There were some good performances, even in second gear. Liam and Kevin Hinphey looked head and shoulders above most players on the pitch while a number of substitutes like Brendan Douban and Deaglan Foley added much needed energy and pace to Derry’s game. In short though, this was one to get out of the way.
Derry’s first half lethargy was only fuelled by an early three point lead after Ruairi Convery (2) and Alan Grant were on target and with their first meaningful attack, Durack’s underdogs levelled the game through a Kevin Campbell penalty after Sean McVeigh had been fouled.
The rest of the game was a similar tale of Derry forging ahead and appearing to have the game sewn up before easing off and allowing Donegal back into the game, usually via a goal.
McLean’s men conceded five goals in five games in Division 2A this season; another five in four games throughout their Christy Ring campaign. Donegal managed to score five in just over 70 minutes.
After Campbell’s early goal, Derry spent the reminder of the half building what would become a familiar seven point advantage (they led by seven on three separate occasions in the match) with the eternally in space Kevin Hinphey scoring the Derry goal with a rasping shot after good work from Grant along the left.
Then, with half-time seconds away, a huge free from Danny Cullen caused mayhem in front of the Derry posts. When the home side were adjudged to have touched the ball on the ground, a 20m free was awarded but instead of the safety of a point, Campbell drilled a low shot under Derry keeper Barry Robinson to leave it 1-11 to 2-04 and keep the visitors well in the game.
With 17 seconds of the restart Derry appeared to have reasserted their authority once again when a move that saw Jonathan O’Dwyer find Sean McGuigan ended with Grant finding the net with a neat finish for 2-11 to 2-4.
It should have been the signal for a comfortable second 35 minutes. Instead, Donegal full-forward Ronan McDermot managed to plunder himself a second half hat-trick with goals in the 46th, 60th and 70th minutes.
Even with the five goals though, Donegal were always playing catch-up. Derry’s third goal had arrived seconds before Donegal’s fourth after a fantastic solo run and shot from Na Magha’s Douban who had only been on the pitch four minutes.
Along with a steady supply of points, it kept Derry out of Donegal’s reach but Tom McLean will not have been fooled by this display.