It never felt in doubt as Donegal defeated Fermanagh by 12 points to become kings of Ulster for the fourth time in eight years.
Donegal 2-18 Fermanagh 0-12
By Chris McNulty in Clones. Photos by Evan Logan
The decisive swings came via Eoghan Ban Gallagher and Ryan McHugh, who scored the first-half goals that put this final beyond Fermanagh’s reach.
The way back for Fermanagh was just too much when they shipped the opening goal in the 16th minute.
The move began with Ciaran Thompson winning possession from a kick-out. Patrick McBrearty burrowed his way down a narrow Fermanagh corridor and sent Ryan McHugh into the zone. So often the man on the end of these moves, McHugh – as he was for Jamie Brennan’s goal against Down a fortnight ago – provided the assist here.
McHugh’s inviting ball across the goal face was palmed home by Gallagher. Donegal were settled and Fermanagh rattled all at once.
Four minutes before half-time, McHugh hit the bullseye himself.
He had plenty to do after being fed by Paul Brennan, but the Kilcar man weaved his way into position, shaking off the attentions of the already-booked Kane Connor before hammering beyond Patrick Cadden to put Donegal eight ahead – and there was no looking back as Donegal won their ninth Ulster crown.
Declan Bonner becomes the third man – after Brian McEniff and Jim McGuinness – and Michael Murphy hoisted the Anglo Celt aloft for a fourth time, a record for a Donegal captain.
Fermanagh’s woes deepened when Ryan Jones, who had just been yellow carded, was given his marching orders in the 54th minute when he chopped down Paddy McGrath.
Donegal had 13 different players on the scoreboard and took their Ulster SFC total for 2018 to 8-76 in four games.
When McHugh smashed to the net before the break, Donegal already look home and hosed.
Sean Quigley (free) and Ciaran Corrigan, polishing off a tidy attack that involved Che Cullen and Barry Mulrone, put two scores on the board for Fermanagh. Mulrone, whose grandfather played senior football for Donegal, was busy in the opening half-an-hour and had three assists to his name.
But Patrick McBrearty found a way through and Michael Murphy arched over a free in added time to send Donegal into the interval 2-7 to 0-5 in front.
With Donegal minus suspended Neil McGee, there was a second Championship start for Red Hughs’ Stephen McMenamin at full-back and, in a second switch to the Tir Chonaill side that annihilated Down in the semi-final, Odhrán Mac Niallais began in place of Caolan Ward.
In the early stages, there was the curious sight of McMenamin trotting not just into Fermanagh territory, but right in on top of ‘keeper Cadden, taking Quigley for an early wander to the far end of St Tiernach’s Park.
It wasn’t the only case of the attendance having to squint in wonder.
Five minutes after his goal, Gallagher was on the mark with a well-taken point after a Donegal attack that started with Jamie Brennan winning a turnover in corner-back sentry.
Ten minutes into the second half, a square ball call denied McGrath his first Donegal goal. The Ardara man had batted home, but the celebrations were cut short in a move that came just after Jamie Brennan was thwarted as he looked set to bag a third Tir Chonaill major with Gallagher, again, the man at the controls.
In the final ten minutes, McGrath – after cutting in on a narrow angle from the left – fisted over a fourth Donegal point in as many minutes as the deficit widen to double figures.
Mac Niallais had landed Donegal’s opening point; from just mere metres in front of the Pat McGrant stand, the Gaoth Dobhair man floated delightfully between the sticks after Gallagher made the incision.
Seconds earlier, Sean Quigley punted Fermanagh in front from a free and the green and white hoards around the baking old cauldron rose as one.
Fermanagh were in the greater numbers and they arrived armed with that unwavering belief that Gallagher spoke of in the build-up to a first final meeting of the counties.
Their lead lasted not even a minute; soon, Gallagher’s goal extinguished the flames and their hope became despair when McHugh drilled home.
The arrival of Seamus Quigley – named to start but left in reserve having been left out of Fermanagh’s semi-final win over Monaghan because of an apparent disciplinary breach – posed a new set of problems for Donegal and when Sean Quigley’s lofted ball in dropped invitingly there was an early warning for Donegal.
Shaun Patton, Hugh McFadden and McFadden were all under it and Patton did brilliantly to save from Seamus Quigley, though referee David Gough had already signalled a free out.
Tom Clarke’s introduction was a clear intention of Fermanagh’s plan for the last 25 minutes – bombardment – but Jones’s dismissal meant Clarke was withdrawn into the engine room.
Their supporters were flocking for the exit long before the call game, the photographs had their money shot with Rory Gallagher offering a congratulatory handshake to Declan Bonner and the green and gold hoards were dancing in the beaming Clones sunshine.
As Murphy said in his acceptance speech: ‘We’re back again!’
Donegal: Shaun Patton; Paddy McGrath (0-1), Stephen McMenamin, Eoghan Ban Gallagher (1-1); Frank McGlynn, Paul Brennan (0-2), Ryan McHugh (1-0); Hugh McFadden, Leo McLoone; Odhrán Mac Niallais (0-1), Michael Langan (0-1), Ciaran Thompson (0-3, 1f); Patrick McBrearty (0-1), Michael Murphy (0-4, 3f), Jamie Brennan (0-1). Subs: Daire Ó Baoill for McBrearty (38), Caolan Ward for P.Brennan (57), Anthony Thompson for Mac Niallais (61), Cian Mulligan (0-1) for Langan (63), Mark McHugh (0-1) for C.Thompson (65), Darach O’Connor (0-1) for J.Brennan (68).
Fermanagh: Patrick Cadden; Kane Connor, Che Cullen, Michael Jones; Barry Mulrone (0-1), James McMahon, Lee Cullen; Eoin Donnelly (0-1), Ryan Jones; Paul McCusker, Declan McCusker, Aidan Breen; Sean Quigley (0-4f), Conall Jones (0-1), Ciaran Corrigan (0-1). Subs: Eamon McHugh for Connor (33), Cian McManus for M.Jones (black card 35), Seamus Quigley (0-3, 2f) for P.McCusker (half-time), Tom Clarke for Corrigan (45), Ruairi Corrigan (0-1) for Sean Quigley (57), Daniel Teague for D.McCusker (67).
Referee: David Gough (Meath).