FROM CHRIS MCNULTY AT CELTIC PARK
THE Ulster Championship means a lot to Jim McGuinness.
And a 1-11 to 0-11 win over Derry at Celtic Park was the perfect way to begin Donegal’s quest to regain the Anglo-Celt.
A 39th minute goal by Leo McLoone proved priceless for Donegal, who emerged from the lion’s den still standing. With a semi-final to come against Fermanagh or Antrim, Donegal will be confident of booking a place in their fourth successive Ulster final.
This was McGuinness’s eleventh win in twelve Ulster Championship games and it was a win borne out of a surprising selection that worked wonders.
Donegal came into the game as the slight underdogs after being beaten by Monaghan in last month’s Division 2 League final, but they came good when it mattered here.
“The Ulster Championship is absolutely massive and it’s where you want to be,” McGuinness said after master-minding a memorable win over Brian McIver’s Oak Leaf.
“You prepare a team to try and hit a peak for the first round of the championship.
“Our camp is positive. It’s the same routine for us every single year.
“Maybe in some other provinces – without being disrespectful – teams can try to peak for later in the competition. You cannot do that in ulster and you’ve got to be ready from the first day out. It means everything to our players and management. You try to get things right for that. We got over the line today.”
None of Rory Kavanagh, Neil Gallagher or Martin McElhinney started, with Paddy McGrath in for his first appearance since last August and Darach O’Connor handed an SFC debut. Kavanagh was suspended, while Gallagher and McElhinney both came on as subs at key intervals; McElhinney coming on at half-time for Christy Toye and Gallagher thrown in just as Donegal got the upper hand.
Donegal inflicted the bulk of the damage in the third quarter.
Derry led 0-6 to 0-4 at half-time, but Donegal seized control when Leo McLoone fired to the net four minutes into the second half, a delightful left-footed finish giving Thomas Mallon little chance.
Michael Murphy had played around centrefold in the first half, but the captain was sent to his natural habitat for the second – and he helped strike the match.
Having had a hand in the goal, Murphy scored three second half points.
Indeed, it was the Donegal captain who provided the coup de grâce. A sideline kick in the 42nd minute, from just short of the ’45 on the right-hand touchline seemed impossible. On the instruction of McGuinness, Murphy let fly and a beautifully-struck effort sailed over. Those people who compile end-of-year montages for the summer’s highlights were surely tagging it for inclusion as the umpires reached for their flags.
Derry did get a second wind, but Donegal soaked up the pressure. Neil McGee denied Kevin Johnson with a brave block and McIver’s side became frustrated. When they were just two behind, six minutes from the end, Gerard O’Kane fired wide after a long period of Derry possession.
“That floored us,” former Donegal boss McIver said.
“We’re taking the scenic route again – so be it. It takes you a wee while to get going again. The lads are very disappointed because we had prepared very well for that game and for a good percentage of the game – played really well. But we didn’t come out with the result.”
By contrast, Donegal won a Mallon kick-out in the final minute and took 18 passes before McLoone kicked the game’s final point, with Derry having James Kielt, a sub, black carded in those dying moments.
“We have prioritised the Ulster Championship over the last four years and any day you win in it is a big day,” said McGuinness.
“We’re delighted. But the next day is going to be the exact same thing. It’s going to be a battle and a challenge and you’re going to be tested tactically and physically. You’ve got to try and prepare the team as best you can for that. We’ve got four weeks now to focus on that.”
As the aesthetics of this business go, McGuinness’s teams get criticised from all quarters – but the Glenties man isn’t worried one iota.
“Not one hoot do I care what people think of us,” was the blunt answer. “The most important thing for us is the Ulster championship. We always focus for, we always prepare for it and we want to get it right when it comes around.”
It was a day when the rest of Ulster drew an audible groan. Donegal haven’t gone away, you know.