Derry 0-11, Donegal 0-10
Three minutes of added time were announced at St. Tiernach’s Park, Clones on Saturday, underdogs Derry comfortably in control against raging hot favourites Donegal, Derry’s 0-10 to 0-07 lead in the 54th minute having been cut three minutes later when Ethan O’Donnell pointed his third free to leave two between these neighbouring counties.
Still Derry’s response was immediate with player of the match, Conor Glass, popping the ball over the bar to restore the three point lead and keep the Oak Leafers firmly on course to cause a monumental upset against a side that had been short odds to win both the Ulster and All Ireland title.
But then what unfolded in the final moments of added time was like a ‘black comedy’ with Donegal’s search for a winning goal at the epicentre of a comedy of errors that threatened to derail Derry’s heroic effort in the most cruel of circumstances!
In the 59th minute a long ball from wing-back Daire Ó Baoill reached Rory Car and he turned sharply and hooked the ball superbly between the posts to cut the lead to two points, possibly the worst possible lead to defend in the final minutes!
Defend it Derry did though with discipline and control for two minutes. Then Derry’s worst nightmare came into sharp focus!
It started with Glass getting possession. Donegal full-back Stephen McMenamin was now up in attack as Donegal went in search of a winning goal but their cause seemed to have been lost as he was adjudged to have picked the ball off the ground.
Glass played a one-two with Fergal Higgins and the game seemed under control with the ball in the safe hands of the Glen star.
However the groans were audible, the anger palpable when the referee penalised him for over-carrying the ball! It was a dreadful decision but one that now put Derry’s lead in peril as the ball was played into the crowded goalmouth.
Kilcar’s Conor Doherty, who had scored two points from frees in the first half and one in the second, won possession.
As he tried to drive the ball forward in the congested penalty area substitute Niall McAtamney put in a textbook two handed block tackle to dislodge the ball.
Danger averted it seemed as only seconds of added time remained!
But then came the second inexplicable decision from the referee in the space of a minute. To the absolute consternation, nay utter anger, of the Derry fans but the sheer delight of the huge army of Donegal supporters who could scarcely believe their luck, the referee penalised the young Swatragh player and awarded the reigning champions the likely life-line of a penalty.
It was a travesty of a decision but the burden of taking the spot kick to win the game for Donegal’s Conor Doherty in the Clones cauldron must have been unbearable.
The pressure was too much for the player and he scooped the ball horribly over the bar. Now it would be down to the referee gain to see if more time would be played but he sounded the final whistle when the ball landed in the middle of the field.
It must have been heart-breaking for Doherty but Derry’s victory was the right result as neither Glass nor McAtamney committed a foul!
Derry manager Damian McErlean was calmness personified in the minutes after the final whistle but he did comment on the frenetic closing moments, his train of thought temporarily halted as Derry senior manager Brian McIver offered words of congratulation as he led Derry seniors on to the pitch.
“I thought the over-carrying decision was ridiculous,” explained McErlean, “That would have been an absolute travesty. Thankfully young Conor Doherty, who is an unbelievable player, put it over the bar.
“But he was well marked today by Niall Keenan, probably the most intelligent defender in the county. He may not be the fastest but he just knows how to defend. He marks the space and his temperament is second to none.
“It could have been catastrophic for us. I would need to have seen it (the penalty call) on TV to it looked to be really harsh on him.”
Donegal had started the brighter although there was confusion over RCarr’s free in the 3rd minute. Did it go inside or outside the post? Eventually it was ruled wide but it was not the most confidence boosting start for the match officials!
Ethan O’Donnell, from a free, and Doherty put Donegal ahead by the 7th minute but Derry settled, Swatragh’s Patrick Kearney ruling the air waves with a series of unbelievable high catches.
Glass pointed two frees to level midway through the half and then added a third from another free in the 17th minute for 0-03 to 0-02. Doherty pointed a free to level for a third time but Derry finished the half in control, with Kearney show-casing a serious display with the lead point six minutes from half time, Shane McGuigan then playing a one-two with Steelstown’s Eoghan Concannon in the final minute of the half to give Derry a 0-05 to 0-03 interval advantage.
The Derry manager looked back on the first half remarking, “Our defence was very commanding, McGrogan as well. All over the pitch our work rate was exceptional. Around the middle Jack Doherty gave a serious shift.
“In the first half, we got a serious base because Patrick Kearney had the game of his life. He was absolutely outstanding. He tired in the second half but there was no way any man could keep that level of performance up, so we put Big Niall (McAtamney) his club mate in and he won ball and was a presence in there.
“But everybody tired as the work rate was ferocious altogether. We had intended to play Conor Glass as sweeper - which he did - and he read between the lines very well. He went forward when he needed to have something up front.
“Our covering was fantastic, our defence was superb because coming into the game I thought the Donegal forwards were something else in terms of the difference they make and that’s why they have been beating all these teams but we knew that we could not give them the space.
“We looked at all the games they played, seniors as well as we were looking at the systems as much as the individuals. We knew the individuals because we played against them twice and that was the biggest advantage. We learned even more the second time we played them because we learned from the mistakes that we’d made. We’ve won the most important game of the three!”
Glass started the second half with a pointed free, Derry now with a three point cushion at 0-06 to 0-03.
On the kick-out Donegal substitute Mark Coyle was extremely fortunate that the card was yellow and not red for the high and dangerous tackle he put in on Glass. The Derry star then punished his indiscretion on the scoreboard after playing a one-two with Jack Doherty for a 0-07 to 0-03 lead.
When Shane McGuigan pointed a free, Derry’s 0-08 to 0-03 lead looked unassailable.
Carr stroked the ball over the bar from a ‘45’ but Derry responded when McGuigan pointed from an acute angle.
Still Donegal hit back with pointed frees from O’Donnell and Doherty to leave three between the sides in the 45th minute.
Shea Downey was booked for a foul on Michael Carroll and Carr made it a two point game from the free but when Glass pointed a free in the 54th minute for 0-10 to 0-07 there looked no way back for Donegal!
But then came the drama of the closing moments, with the referee taking ‘centre stage’ in the final nail-biting plays.
When it was put to the Derry manager that nobody gave them a chance, he remarked with a broad grin, “It was absolutely brilliant. It was great that nobody gave us a chance.
“To be fair to the Donegal lads their own county did not do them any favours. They saw them as unbeatable. We kept a close eye on what was being said on social media and we had it up on the walls of the changing room, left right and centre.”
But McErlean then urged caution, “But we have won nothing yet. Donegal were massive favourites for the semi-final.
Cavan are a quality side and they really punished the two sides they’ve met. They have 11 of the St. Patrick’s College MacRory winning team. They have a team that has been playing together since before Christmas. They hve some quality individuals as well. They are a force.
“Look, we have only half the job done but the boys now believe and that’s the main thing. We have shown that we can beat Donegal.”
Derry’s minor woes of the last few years have been ended but now they must plot a way past a very good Cavan side.
Derry scorers: Conor Glass 0-07 (3f, 0-01 ‘45’), Shane McGuigan 0-03 (1f) and Patrick Kearney 0-01
Donegal scorers: Conor Doherty 0-04 (2f, 0-01 pen), Etan O’Donnell 0-03f and Rory Carr 0-03 (2f).
Derry: Callum Mullan Young; Niall Keenan, Conor McGrogan, Conor Maunsell; Oisin Duffin, Michael McEvoy, Eoghan Concannon; Patrick Kearney, Jack Doherty; Patrick Coney, Shea Downey, Conor Glass (capt); Tiarnan Flanagan, Barry Grant, Shane McGuigan. (Subs) Fergal Higgins for B Grant, 36 mins; Niall McAtamney for O Duffin, 54 mins; Brian Cassidy for P Kearney, 54 mins.
Donegal: Danny Rodgers; Phillip McNern, Stephen McMenamin, Gary McFadden; Daire Ó Baoill, Seaghan Ferry, Ethan O’Donnell; Brendan McCole, Michael Carroll; Jason McGee, Conor Doherty, Naoise Ó Baoill; Neil O’Donnell, Michael Langan, Rory Carr. (Subs) Mark Coyle for N O’Donnell H-T; Karl Bennett for B McCole, 33 mins; Eoin McGettigan for N Ó Baoill, 53 mins; Phillip Doherty for M Langan, 56 mins.
Referee: Sean Laverty (Antrim)