Derry 3-12, Monaghan 0-17
Good teams have gears and an ability to change them and Rory Gallagher's Derry team used every single one of theirs to secure a first Ulster Senior Football Championship final appearance since 2011 thanks to a brilliant four point victory over Monaghan in the Athletic Grounds on Sunday.
First half goals from Gareth McKinless and Benny Heron laid the foundations and when questions were being asked by the Farney men after the break, a second superb major from Heron settled the Oak Leaf ship. Derry started in fifth, dropped it down to third at times to catch their breath in possession, and then dug it out in the lower numbers after half-time to fully deserve their spot at Clones against Donegal in two weeks time.
The only thing missing from the quarter-final victory at Healy Park two weeks ago was the opposition onslaught that always accompanies any excellent Ulster Championship first half. Tyrone's red card that day meant they were never able to muster it but Monaghan certainly did. Turning around seven points up at 2-07 to 0-06, The Farney County threw everything at Derry second half and Derry took it. Took it and replied with some of their own.
There are moments that change games and this thriller had quite a few; McKinless' opening goal, Odhran Lynch's contribution to the second, Ethan Doherty breathtaking (and goal saving) tackle on Micheal Bannigan, Heron's second goal..... the list goes on.
But in the 45th minute, and with Derry rocking for perhaps the first time in the match, Emmet Bradley - who had been introduced for the injured Niall Loughlin - picked up the ball inside his own half. Derry hadn't yet scored after the break but one lung bursting 80m run later, Bradley had held off three Monaghan defenders and split the posts for a score that saw the confidence surge back into both Derry players and supporters among the 14,664 strong crowd.
Derry were brilliant all over the pitch but when Gary Mohan, Jack McCarron and Conor McManus are restricted to only one point from play between them, it says everything about the Oak Leaf defence. McCarron did score three frees and a 'mark' while McManus grabbed five frees but Derry's ability to limit their influence in open play was pivotal.
McKinless was superb, Rogers class, Chrissy McKaigue like glue to McCarron and Padraig McGrogan superb on McManus, but Ethan Doherty just shaded the 'Player of the Match' honours with some huge moments, setting up two goals, denying Monaghan another and then winning two huge turnovers second half in a display during which he never stopped moving.
Derry now have a huge two weeks ahead with Loughlin's hamstring injury the only black spot on an otherwise perfect afternoon. With each Ulster Championship victory a bigger date awaits round the corner.
Derry lined up with the same 15 that had started against Tyrone and as with that day in Healy Park, the Oak Leafers brought an intelligence and intensity that the opposition could not cope with in the opening 35 minutes.
Central to the Derry plan was McKinless' deep lying role, the Ballinderry man deliberately holding out of position for what seemed an age before arriving at pace as the extra man to either break the Monaghan lines himself or drag defenders toward him and create an overlap for team-mates.
A first half tally of 2-07 would usually ensure the forward lines hogged the headlines but Derry's defence was superb with Doherty's 17th minutes tackle on Bannigan who was seconds away from celebrating representing a perfect template for young defenders all over the country. It was every bit as crucial as either of the first half goals.
Tactically Derry had Monaghan worked out in the first half and probably should have been even further clear than their 2-07 to 0-06 half-time advantage. Both Derry goals were of the highest quality while Dessie Ward somehow escaped a black card for cynically hauling Shane McGuigan down four minutes before the break in an incident that could have brought Derry a penalty.
Referee David Gough decided the foul was inches outside the square but Rory Gallagher may still have expected to see a card.
Derry were already two points up courtesy of the excellent Niall Toner and McGuigan by the time the opening goal arrived and what a boost it proved for Derry. McGuigan and Ethan Doherty were the men teeing it up but no one had spotted McKinless who took the pass at speed, held off a very high challenge to retain his composure and smash a fantastic high finish into the net for a 1-02 to no score lead on 11 minutes.
Monaghan rallied somewhat after to hit 0-2 but just as the Farney seemed to be settling, Derry struck again. Odhran Lynch was the architect this time, advancing out of his net to pick out a peach of a pas to Toner who escaped Conor Boyle and had the awareness to square the ball to Heron who gleefully fired Derry into a 2-03 to 0-2 lead.
That lead was seven by the break thanks to scores from McGuigan (3) and Loughlin with Monaghan thankfully to hear the short whistle, especially after Ward's intervention on McGuigan which was inches from conceding a penalty.
Every one of the almost 15, 000 strong crowd awaited the Monaghan response and it came within 24 second of the restart, substitute Andrew Woods splitting the posts. yet, if the intensity levels were certainly raised, Monaghan never got closer than three points and every time they did Derry found the extra gear.
Bradley's score kicked that off with his lovely solo effort and then Heron's second goal provided the cushion Derry needed with 10 minutes to play. Again Ethan Doherty was involved, taking a pass from Conor Glass to send Heron away but the finish of the Ballinascreen man was something, stepping back on himself to fire a lovely left footed finish into the top corner even with men on the line.
It was worthy of winning a championship match and it did. At 3-11 to 0-13, it was a gap Monaghan were never going to close, not with the Derry defence in the mood it was.
David Gough's full time whistle brought scenes similar to those in Omagh with thousands of Oak Leaf fans pouring on to the pitch and the players being swamped by jubilant kids. Ulster final fever had gripped Derry.
But there's one more step.
Derry scorers: Benny Heron (2-0), Gareth McKinless (1-0), Shane McGuigan (0-7, 4f, 1m), Niall Toner (0-1), Niall Loughlin (0-1), Emmett Bradley (0-1), Paul Cassidy (0-2),
Monaghan scorers: Jack McCarron (0-4, 3f, 1m), Conor McManus (0-7, 5f), Conor McCarthy (0-1), Darren Hughes (0-1), Andrew Woods (0-1), Dessie Ward (0-1), Niall Kearns (0-1), Ryan McAnespie (0-1),
Derry: Odhran Lynch, Christopher McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Conor McCluskey, Conor Doherty, Gareth McKinless, Padraig McGrogan, Conor Glass, Emmett Bradley, Paul Cassidy, Shea Downey, Ethan Doherty, Benny Heron, Shane McGuigan, Niall Loughlin. (Subs) Emmett Bradley for N Loughlin (inj), 41mins; Padraig Cassidy for C Doherty, 61mins; Ben McCarron for N Toner, 66mins; Paul McNeil for S Downey, 71mins; Lachlan Murray for P Cassidy, 75mins;
Yellow Cards: B Heron, 38mins; C McKaigue, 52mins; S McGuigan, 56mins; G McKinless, 71mins;
Monaghan: Rory Beggan, Kieran Duffy, Conor Boyle, Ryan Wylie, Ryan McAnespie, Dessie Ward, Conor McCarthy, Darren Hughes, Niall Kearns, Shane Carey, Kieran Hughes, Micheal Brannigan, Jack McCarron, Gary Mohan, Conor McManus. (Subs) Andrew Woods for S Carey, 33mins; Karl O'Connell for M Bannigan, 33mins; David Garland for K Hughes, 55mins; Sean Jones for G Mohan, 61mins; Conor Leonard for C Boyle, 72mins;
Yellow Cards: K Hughes, 34mins;
Referee: David Gough (Meath)