Donegal 0-16, Derry 0-15
Derry went to Ballybofey seeking a statement championship win. They didn't get the win they craved but the statement was clear.
Rory Gallagher's men will feel they threw this one away. They had put themselves in a fantastic position with a performance that backed up every rave review earned from their perfect league season. It was there to win, but at the top level, small margins decide matches and Derry were on the wrong side of the margins. A penalty that never was, four clear goal chances and a few poor decisions in both attack and defence. That was all it took.
Donegal never led before the 71st minute, Paddy McBrearty's free edging them ahead for the first time in the match. Even then Derry were able to rouse a response through Shane McGuigan's free but it proved only temporary respite as McBrearty produced an outrageous 75th minute winner, firing over from close to 40 metres to finally decide match they hadn't looked like winning.
For Derry, the day was littered with 'what ifs'. The positives will become clear once the dust has settled but the last thing any Oak Leafer wanted was another gallant defeat. The shining light is the proof that this Derry team belongs among the big guns and while it will take days for the pain of this one to subside, they remain on an upward trajectory.
Donegal were forced to introduce both Michael Murphy and Odhran MacNiallais as they battled to stay in the championship and reputations can win frees in this sport with Derry working harder for frees than the home side who now go forward to meet Tyrone in the semi-final.
There were no surprises for Declan Bonner in the Derry line-up, a statistic which highlighted both the consistency and strength of a settled Oak Leaf team and Gallagher's faith in them. There were no surprise either in the fact that Murphy, despite being listed at No. 14, didn't start with the in-form Paddy McBrearty the focal point of the Donegal attack.
McBrearty was accompanied everywhere by Derry captain Chrissy McKaigue but in an era when the man to man marking is increasingly obsolete, it was an exception. The other was Stephen McMenamin's detailing of Shane McGuigan but the fact it was the Slaughgtneil man winning defensive yards inches from his own posts with the last play of the half illustrated the conundrum facing the Donegal defender.
Derry's improved defensive shape employs every outfield player, as does their attacking thrusts, but it is their ability to rotate both the threat and the responsibility that has shaped this new look Oak Leaf team.
That fact was highlight by five different scorers from Derry seven first half points as they turned around one to the good. Indeed it should have been a more comprehensive lead given they were denied what looked a stone wall fifth minute penalty. Conor Doherty and Paudie Cassidy did the spade work but when they found McGuigan, his quick spin inside caught McMenamin out completely and the Donegal defender appeared to haul McGuigan to the floor with the goal beckoning.
It looked clear cut, but not apparently to Mayo referee David Coldrick who ended up awarding a free out with a spot kick and potential black card seemed inevitable.
That was part of a frantic opening quarter in which both sides could have hit the net. Neither did, but crucially Derry set out their stall with an impressive start.
As they had done in the league, Derry raids were launched from their pacy half-back line courtesy of Messrs McKinless, Doherty, Glass and McFaul with Heron, McGuigan and Niall Loughlin charged with engineering the space inside.
And it was that positive opening which helped Derry settled in and they almost hit the net inside the opening three minutes. McMenamin was charged with touching the ball on the floor. McGuigan stepped up but saw his free strike the upright and fall perfectly into the ands of Heron whose ferocious striker looked goal bound only for a brilliant blocked by Eoghan Ban Gallagher to deny it.
Seconds later and Derry got themselves in a muddle right in front of their own posts and breathed a sigh of relief when a spot of pin ball ended with Brendan Rogers winning a pressure easing free.
All that preceded McGuigan's penalty shout but the Oak Leafers eventually got off the mark on seven minutes through a lovely Heron point and when Shaun Patton restart could only find McGuigan suddenly Derry had two points in less than 30 seconds.
Jamie Brennan got Donegal off the mark on on 11 minutes but Derry were in control, a fact highlighted by McFaul's superb point from wide out along the right touchline to restore the two point lead.
Further points from Padraig Cassidy, Conor Glass and a McGuigan free had Derry 0-6 to 0-2 up but Donegal were littered with quality and even not at their best, Michael Langan, Niall O'Donnell and Jamie Brennan kept them in touch at half-time.
The second half was a as tense as it was thrilling, highlighted by some superb long range scores on both team. Donegal were level from the restart thanks to Caolan McGonigle but Conor Doherty soon restored the Derry lead and the dye was cast.
Indeed the Oak Leafers owned the third quarter but could never quite fashion the goal they built up play deserve. As such they remained within Donegal's sights and would eventually pay for the missed chances. The closest they came to it was as Benny Heron's fisted effort early in the second half which struck the underside of the Donegal bar, came down on the wrong side of the line and was scrambled clear.
Derry were on top at that stage and a goal would have likely finished Donegal but they stayed in the game, the introduction of Murphy, who scored two frees, galvanising the home side for the big finish that eventually broke Derry hearts.
Huge scores rained in from both sides but none bigger than McBrearty's winner. It deserved to win any championship game. It's just Derry didn't deserve to be on the end of it!
Derry scorers: Shane McGuigan (0-4, 2f), Benny Heron (0-2), Ciaran McFaul (0-3), Padraig Cassidy (0-1), Conor Glass (0-1), Conor Doherty (0-1), Niall Loughlin (0-1), Emmet Bradley (0-1), Gareth McKinless (0-1),
Donegal scorers: Jamie Brennan (0-2), Paddy McBrearty (0-3, 2f), Niall O'Donnell (0-3), Michael Langan (0-3), Caolan McGonigle (0-2), Michael Murphy (0-2, 2f), Paul Brennan (0-1),
Derry: Odhran Lynch, Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rogers, Padraig McGrogan, Padraig Cassidy, Gareth McKinless, Conor Doherty, Conor Glass, Emmett Bradley, Ethan Doherty, Niall Loughlin, Ciaran McFaul, Benny Heron, Shane McGuigan, Paul Cassidy. (Subs) Oisin McWilliams for B Heron, 57mins; Niall Toner for P Cassidy, 61mins; Conor McCluskey for E Doherty, 63mins; Paul McNeill for N Loughlin, 73mins;
Yellow cards: S McGuigan, 28mins; C McKaigue, 49mins; B Heron, 54mins.
Donegal: Shaun Patton, Eoin McHugh, Neil McGee, Stephen McMenamin, Ryan McHugh, Odhran McFadden-Ferry, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Huge McFadden, Caolan McGonigle, Ciaran Thompson, Niall O'Donnell, Michael Langan, Paddy McBrearty, Ethan O'Donnell, Jamie Brennan. (Subs) Brendan Cole for S McMenamin, 39mins; Paul Brennan for O McFadden-Ferry, 43mins; Michael Murphy for J Brennan, 46mins; Odhran Mac Niallais for E O'Donnell, 48mins; Oisin Gallen for C Thompson, 70mins;
Yellow cards: S McMenamin, HT;
Referee: David Coldrick (Mayo).