DONEGAL retained the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first time in their history after destroying Down at Clones on Sunday.
It was history on the double for Jim McGuinness’ impressive side who also became the first team to win back-to-back Ulster titles from the preliminary round. Sticking rigidity to their game plan, they simply blew Down away in the second half - outscoring them by 1-13 to 0-6 - with a powerful display which marks them out as serious All-Ireland contenders.
On this evidence, no-one will want to draw them in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Down now have just six days to pick themselves up for a fourth round All-Ireland qualifier against surprise packets Tipperary, who will fancy their chances of causing an upset.
After competing well in the first half, they failed to live with their opponents’ power and pace after the restart and were resigned to their fate after Frank McGlynn’s goal put daylight - six points - between the sides for the first time coming up to the three-quarter hour mark. This defeat extends their long wait for provincial honours, which goes back to 1994.
After a desperately disappointing opening 30 minutes, Donegal centre forward Leo McLoone’s 32nd minute goal finally sparked the game into life. That helped the winners to a 1-5 to 0-7 interval lead and it was one-way traffic for much of the second half.
Both teams made late changes to their selected line-ups with Malin’s Declan Walsh coming in for the injured Eamon McGee in the Donegal defence and Kalum McKing and Liam Doyle replacing Eoin McCartan and Danny Hughes (also unable to start due to injury) on the Down team.
This was a real slow-burner with the teams managing just five scores between them in the first half hour. Ryan Bradley opened the scoring for Donegal in the seventh minute, and Down had to wait until the 13th minute for their first point from a Liam Doyle free.
Patrick McBrearty and Donal O’Hare traded points before Benny Coulter won a soft free which Doyle tapped over from his hands to give the Mournemen the lead, 0-3 to 0-2, for the first time in the 24th minute. Down, who had already clocked up six wides, doubled their lead when O’Hare slotted over a 32nd minute free, but then came the goal the game had so desperately needed when Karl Lacey picked out the unmarked Leo McLoone who slid the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of Brendan McVeigh’s net for a fine finish.
Donegal suddenly had the lead again, but it didn’t last for long. Ambrose Rogers immediately restored parity by blasting inches over and Liam Doyle followed up with another point to edge the 2010 All-Ireland finalists back into a 0-6 to 1-2 lead.
It was end-to-end stuff at this stage as late call-up Declan Walsh came forward from wing back to level the scoring for a third time in the 35th minute. Three minutes of injury-time was allotted, during which time three more scores arrived.
David Walsh edged Donegal back in front, only for Kevin McKernan to reply with a terrific effort from 40 metres. There was still enough time for Declan Walsh to join the Donegal attack again and, running onto a pass from Michael Murphy, he split the posts for a second time in three minutes to give the holders the slenderest of leads at the break.
Down talisman Benny Coulter, who had the defied the odds by returning from a broken ankle in recent weeks, didn’t re-emerge for the second half with manager James McCartan’s brother Eoin taking his place in attack. The substitute made an immediate impact by bringing the underdogs level within a minute of the restart, but Colm McFadden restored Donegal’s lead from a 38th minute free following a foul on McLoone.
Two points in quick succession from Michael Murphy and Mark McHugh saw Jim McGuinness’ men establish a three-point lead, 1-8 to 0-8, for the first time. Liam Doyle narrowed the gap with a sweet point off his trusty left boot before substitute Martin McElhinney - who set up Murphy minutes earlier - left a goal between the sides once again.
Eoin McCartan grabbed his second point to keep Down in touch before Danny Hughes entered the fray with just over 20 minutes remaining. McHugh restored Donegal’s three-point advantage and then came a seismic moment in the 51st minute when Donegal corner back Frank McGlynn burst forward to plant the ball in the bottom right corner of the Down net to give the Tir Chonaill men a 2-10 to 0-10 lead.
Down’s misery was compounded by an incredible miss from a close-in Doyle free and another Donegal point from a McFadden free. At this juncture, the Mourne County reintroduced Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes kicked a point to leave six in it again with 14 minutes remaining.
But straight from Paul Durcan’s kick-out, Ryan Bradley knocked over his second and McFadden quickly added another point to push the champions into a 2-13 to 0-11 lead. With an hour on the clock, McFadden landed his fourth point and Donegal’s thoughts were already drifting towards an All-Ireland quarter-final in two weeks’ time.
Substitute Conor Maginn pulled back a point for a deflated Down side, only for another second half replacement, Danny McLoughlin, to reply and become Donegal’s 10th scorer. McElhinney and Aidan Brannigan exchanged points before two in the space of 30 seconds from McFadden sealed an emphatic win for Jim McGuinness’ men.