BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IN the 63rd minute of Sunday’s Ulster Championship quarter-final, Mark Lynch got an inch of space just short of the 45-metre line and bent over a score to pull Derry to within two points of Donegal.
It was almost a moment of release for Lynch. It was the first time the Bannagher man, Derry’s captain, had got the chance to execute such a kick. Derry had picked up possession of a loose ball and Lynch converted. Seconds earlier, the ball was plucked from Sean Leo McGoldrick’s grasp by Karl Lacey.
The ball had barely sailed over the black spot when Lynch could feel Lacey’s shadow upon him again.
Lynch hit four points on Sunday, including three fine frees, but there was little Lacey could have done about those.
Earmarked as Derry’s danger man from his exploits in the League, Donegal took Lynch to task with Lacey delivering a masterclass.
Moments later, with the game clock veering towards added-on time, Lacey set up Leo McLoone for a score that proved to be the clincher. It was a score that outlined Donegal’s patience and comfort in possession: According to the good people of the ‘Dontfoul’ blog, Donegal worked the ball through eighteen passes for sixty-three seconds before McLoone applied the finish.
When McLoone swung over, Brian McIver went into a rage of expletives as he walked the touchline. He knew the game was up and the goose was burning.
When Lacey was offloading to McLoone, Lynch hadn’t tracked his run, something that McIver was aware of as he watched the game slip from his side and looked skyward as another false dawn fell over the Oak Leaf.
Lacey’s influence was all over a performance that was as much a victory for both the tactical nous and bravery of Jim McGuinness as it was an outline of his unwavering belief and confidence in both his players and his system.
Lacey has won All-Star awards at corner-back and centre-back. The 2012 Player of the Year, Lacey can dictate offence or defence at will. On Sunday, he managed to do both. His tackling has been perfected. Nine seconds into the second half one of the moments of the day arrived as Lacey put in a magnificent arm to rob Niall Holly of possession. Holly was almost perplexed as Lacey arrived in, with his right hand to pop the ball away from the driving Coleraine man.
Twenty-three seconds later Anthony Thompson was applying the finish for the opening point of the second half.
Another example of where the Lacey and Lynch tussle was won and lost came when Lacey surged away from the Derry man to clip over a point in the 21st minute. Lynch threw his hands skyward. The stomach was churning at the prospect of another 50 minutes with Lacey for company.
Thompson was also one of Donegal’s most potent attackers; time and time again the Naomh Conaill flyer was Donegal’s most advanced performers, not least when he chased a Patrick McBrearty shot in the first half. The ball cannoned off an upright and the alert Thompson managed to set McBrearty up in front of goal, although the Kilcar man skewed his finish.
The performance of that half-back triumvirate of Lacey, Thompson and Frank McGlynn was back to its rampaging best on Sunday with McGlynn answering in some style the question as to who would fill Mark McHugh’s void. A beautiful pass set Leo McLoone up for the game-winning goal in the 39th minute and he was at the hub of many of those blistering Donegal attacks, off-loading for McBrearty in the second half, but again the Kilcar man was off key, though he scored a point from that effort.
It was devastating stuff from Donegal, who won the game in the opening 15 minutes of the second half. It was a victory that silenced the doubters, whose voices grew following the Division 2 League final loss to Monaghan last month.
“Within ourselves we knew that was never the focus and the League final was never the focus,” McGlynn noted after the game.
“It was never one of the ones you focus on. The Ulster Championship was the focus and this is the date we’ve been planning for all year. We were happy coming in here.”
Problems with club fixtures and then the departure of McHugh as one of a quartet of players who left the panel raised questions about Tir Chonaill’s state of mind.
“Our camp is positive and it’s the same routine for us every single year,” McGuinness pointed out.
With Rory Kavanagh suspended and Neil Gallagher unable to start because of an ankle injury, McGuinness had to reinvent Donegal’s wheel on Sunday. What arrived was a selection that surprised but delivered.
Paddy McGrath started and was at his tenacious best, while Odhrán MacNiallais and Darach O’Connor contributed well on the occasion of their first Ulster SFC appearances.
McGuinness left Martin McElhinney out. The ‘next man in line’ with Kavanagh and Gallagher absent, he tagged McElhinney’s toes for the trenches, where he knew the game would go after the interval. McElhinney was immense in the second half, scoring a point in the 60th minute that outlined his power and determination as he swatted Emmet Bradley aside on route to the score.
He had replaced Christy Toye at half-time. Toye contributed superbly in the first half. The St Michael’s man, making his first Championship appearance since the 2012 All-Ireland final, Toye saw possession fifteen times in the first half and used it well each time. Never did he concede possession and always it was used wisely.
His withdrawal was all part of the plan.
“The strategy was to manage the situation around the middle of the park,” McGuinness explained.
“Martin has started most games, so we held him to take him in for Christy and we tried to free up other people. We had Neil there if the backs were to the wall. He has a significant injury on his ankle. He was only there if needs be. The game was in the melting pot and we felt there were 25 minutes in him. We felt that the best strategy was to share the game time between Christy and Martin.”
Paul Durcan’s kick-outs gave Donegal a good platform with Donegal winning five of the first seven Derry kick-outs in the second half.
McLoone has not been at his best during the League, but McGuinness put his trust in the Naomh Conaill man on Sunday. He was RTE’s Man of the Match and kicked two of the game’s big scores, that 70th minute point and the 39th minute goal kicked with the precision and poise that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Champions League final the previous night.
“It’s a tribute to the panel that we have, not just from one to twenty-six,” McLoone said afterwards.
“Every man trains hard and it was a tribute to the whole panel to win. The midfielders did very well with Rory and Neil out. We held on and stuck to what Jim told us to do. It paid off.”
Early on, Derry tried to mix it up, but a long ball in towards the full-forward line was bread and butter to Eamon McGee, who was in superb form alongside his brother Neil in the full-back line. With these two in such a show of strength there aren’t many who’ll better them. Neil made one magnificent block to deny Kevin Johnson a goal, while sub David Walsh made a telling interception just as Enda Lynn was lining up the bullseye. During the entire 70 minutes, Derry managed to have just one shot inside the Donegal D, a testament to their defensive work.
On the break, Ryan McHugh made hay. McHugh is one of the brightest sparks in Donegal football and the Kilcar man was involved so much. Rarely did he make a bad decision with the ball and he could be one to watch this summer.
That they won deservedly on an off day for Colm McFadden and had eight scorers on a day when the experienced forward, on the occasion of his 150th Donegal appearance, was held scoreless says a lot about Donegal.
All of that is without mention of the sheer brilliance of the contribution of Michael Murphy. The captain played a deep-set role around the middle of the field in the first half, but was unleashed close to Thomas Mallon’s goal in the second – and what a display that was.
His 42nd minute point from a sideline kick was the stuff of genius. That it was being compared to a famous score by Kerry great Maurice Fitzgerald says a lot. It said a lot, too, that Jim McGuinness had urged the Glenswilly man to have a go when it seemed as if he was going to play it short.
There was the catch and off-load to Frank McGlynn in the move for McLoone’s goal or there was the side-step to leave Chrissy McKaigue bewildered for a wondrous score during a period when Murphy again proved himself to be one of the business’s best.
All through the League, McGuinness rammed home the point that this was the day his men were aiming for.
A seven-day training camp in the Algarve was far from a sight-seeing mission. At the Browns Sports and Leisure Club in Vilamoura – a resort used by the Leicester Tigers on the same week as Donegal were in – they put their plans to the test and, as McGuinness says ‘pressed the button’.
One of the testimonials on the Browns website outlines what it offers: ‘I say professional because that is exactly the standard Browns set in all areas of sport whether it be the excellent condition of the training pitch or the fantastic heavy weights gym facilities or the fabulous standard of accommodation or simply the quality food produced for the team’s dietary needs.’
The warm-weather work was all about fine tuning Donegal for a quest to regain the Ulster crown.
“The Ulster Championship is absolutely massive and it’s where you want to be,” McGuinness said.
“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.”
The Donegal team was sporting new wristbands on Sunday. Their message remains sacrosanct within the squad, but the end target of whatever message is stitched upon them involves returning Donegal to those heights from which they fell in 2013.
They’ve a bit to go, but their rivals, all of a sudden, will be paying a little more attention again.