By Frank Craig
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness insists that his side wasn’t out to silence its critics on Sunday.
No, their motivation was simple according to the boss. Donegal’s desire to get back to the top of the provincial mountain in Ulster is what drove them on in Celtic Park.
But when you tilt the weekend’s showing back and forth, the odd glimpses of gold that reflect from it must surely mean that a forth successive Ulster final appearance in a row is, with the greatest of respect to Antrim and Fermanagh, now surely a formality.
Unsurprisingly McGuinness bats away suggestions that Donegal already have one foot in the provincial decider and he was adamant that the team’s semi-final foes in Ulster will be afforded the exact same respect Derry were given prior to the weekend.
He told the Post: "The Ulster Championship is very important to Donegal. It's where we want to be. Without being disrespectful to the other provinces, you have to peak from the outset of the Ulster series, you can't hope to just get to a peak.
"Our players and management take the Championship very seriously and while we are very happy to get over the line against Derry, we will now focus on our forthcoming semi-final. They really delivered today.”
Not only did his players deliver for him, but it’s true to say that the manager also stepped up to the mark when questions were also being asked of him. Make no mistake, there were plenty of reasons to think that Sunday’s result was beyond Donegal given McGuinness’ problems around the middle of the park.
However, while others were quick to question and in some cases dismiss what exactly Donegal delivered in that first 35 minutes of action; it’s true to say that they completely missed the point. In the manager’s own words, he had to “manufacture a situation”.
It wasn’t exactly ‘rope a dope’ but Donegal’s sussing out of Derry there set them up perfectly for the blitz they eventually hit them with after the break.
McGuinness explains. “We started Christy Toye because we knew we would get a good 35 minutes from him and we also wanted to hold Neil Gallagher back until we saw what course the game would take.
"The fact that we were able to bring on Neil and Martin McElhinney at half-time was a bonus. Martin started every league game for us but we knew that if we brought him on he would give us a big effort.
"We had played Michael Murphy in a deeper role in the first-half but when he went into full-forward, some very good passes were played into him which he won.
"He was also involved in some excellent off-loads. It also meant that Martin McElhinney was able to make an impact at midfield but some days you try things and they work and on other occasions they don't. Thankfully, they did this time.
"We knew from the analysis we had undertaken that Derry would play possession football. We had to be patient and then when we ourselves had the ball we had to be equally sure that we did not give it away. Derry continued to recycle the ball but I thought in the last 10 minutes we had a good deal of possession that we protected well.”
In essence, the patience and the composure shown early on meant that Donegal absorbed everything Derry were mustering, coaxed them into advanced positions and, armed with what they’d learned, were then in a position to implement their gameplan after half-time.
By inviting Derry out of the blocks in the opening 35 minutes, more and more gaps were being left between their midfield and defence as the half wore on. However, Donegal resisted the temptation for the entire first period.
But when the hosts were turned over in possession on a number of occasions immediately after half-time, Donegal finally unleashed hell and the pace of their counterattack cut Derry to shreds.
And had Patrick McBrearty blazed under instead of over the crossbar on 47 minutes, and opened up an eight-point gap in the process, then Donegal would surely have put the game beyond Derry at that stage.
“Derry presented a massive challenge,” McGuinness said on the Donegal mindset prior to battle. “They have been going really well and brought a lot of confidence into the game and played with that confidence. That’s a difficult thing to face down.
“When you are out on the pitch, teams feed off the other team and when your team know the other team are playing with confidence it is difficult for you to be dominant and push on. But I thought our lads faced that challenge well and held their composure.”
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