Derry 0-17 Donegal 4-11: 'McGuinness returns to haunt Harte and set Ulster Championship alight'

On Saturday evening, as Celtic Park bathed in sunshine and became awash with red and white and green and gold in the minutes before throw-in, it was difficult not to feel like we were about to be truly captivated by the Ulster Championship for the first time this year.

Thankfully it wasn't a false dawn.

Derry, viewed by many as strong All-Ireland contenders, were chasing the win that would set them on the road to three-in-a-row.

As Division One champions, Mickey Harte's men came to Celtic Park as deserved favourites.

And while losing here won't alter the general consensus that the Oak Leafers can go all the way this year, Jim McGuinness and Donegal have well and truly entered the conversation.

"I'm very, very happy," McGuinness told BBC Sport NI.

"Their application was great, the work-rate was great, tactically they nailed everything really.

"They were tuned in to what we were trying to achieve and thankfully it worked out for us."

This win, delivered by a ravenous Donegal performance that made Derry look "second class", as Harte put it, gives momentum not only to the Tir Chonaill men but the Ulster Championship itself after three largely uninspiring games.

With Tyrone - around whom there is always much intrigue - getting their campaign underway on Sunday and Armagh and Down already in the semi-finals, it's suddenly shaping up nicely.

Big win for Jim

After returning to Donegal last year and seeing his side pitted against Derry in the Ulster quarter-finals, McGuinness spoke about long-time adversary Harte with deep reverence.

He readily admitted to having lost sleep in the past before big championship meetings with Harte's Tyrone, but while speaking to reporters after Donegal's win, McGuinness revealed that he had slept fine in the nights leading up to Saturday's match.

So, too, had his players. That much was clear as they repeatedly tore through Derry to send a statement to the rest of Ulster and beyond.

McGuinness and his players will sleep well this weekend. It may be a different story for Derry, of course, and their goalkeeper Odhran Lynch, for whom the sight of looking over his shoulder to see Daire O Baoill lobbing the ball over his head as he scrambled back to his goal may haunt his dreams.

Odhran Lynch is chipped by Daire O Baoill for one of Donegal's goals
Derry goalkeeper Odhran Lynch is often used as extra outfield player but he was twice chipped by Daire O Baoill at Celtic Park [Getty Images]

Donegal are no strangers to nightmares themselves. They were in turmoil last year. Between managerial changes and heavy defeats, they looked a team in disarray.

But with a Division Two title in the bag, they have steadied the ship under McGuinness, and on Saturday they looked an entirely different animal to the disillusioned bunch who were ushered out of Ulster by Down last year.

Collectively they were a joy to behold. Ryan McHugh, absent last year, looked back to his electrifying best, Jason McGee produced a massive midfield performance to stand up to Derry's Conor Glass-Brendan Rogers axis while Brendan McCole ensured Shane McGuigan had one of his quietest games in a while.

O Baoill even managed to do to Lynch what he did to Fermanagh's Ross Bogue earlier this year.

But McGuinness - back in the Ulster Championship for the first time since the 2014 final - was not about to carried away given what lies ahead.

He had six months to fine tune his masterplan for Derry. He has just a week to plot either Tyrone or Cavan's downfall.

"I hope that it helps a lot, I hope it will add a lot to the belief, but the problem is we have an eight-day turnaround," McGuinness told a large group of reporters as the temperature plummeted outside the Celtic Park changing rooms.

"We've got to get ready to go again and there's no time to sit on anything. We've got to get straight into it now.

"It feels good to take a breather tonight and get up the road to watch the game tomorrow. Knowing you're through is brilliant but as soon as you know who's coming out of that game, it'll be full-on for another week.

"It's very difficult to do your job in a week. It's almost impossible. It's a bandage over a dam situation."

McGuinness, as he has done so often in the past, edged the tactical battle. His players utilised Shaun Patton's kick-outs to build their attacks to great effect before the goalkeeper was forced off in the second half with an injury.

The Donegal boss is regarded as one of Gaelic football's master tacticians, but he admits his squad may need to draw more on energy and momentum than tactical innovation before next week's semi-final.

"We must try, I think, to harness the energy from the performance as opposed to the tactical build-up for the next one," observed McGuinness, who improved his tally over Harte in championship fare to 4-0.

Derry didn't take eye off Ulster - Harte

Derry must now regroup after a first provincial defeat in three years.

In the grand scheme, this defeat may prove a turning point in pursuit of the ultimate prize, but Harte was quick to dismiss talk of Derry having taken their eye off the ball in Ulster.

"I don't think so, they obviously had the chance to go for three in a row and that was something special, so I don't think they've been taking this championship lightly," he said of his players.

"But Donegal very much had their sights set on this game from a long way back. They put a huge amount of work to make this a real good day for them and they carried that through.

"You have to hand it to them. They did what they set out to do very well and we didn't do a lot of what we've been doing all year to the high standard that we have been doing."

Fans watch the game
14,714 fans watched Saturday's game in glorious sunshine at Celtic Park [Inpho]
Brennan celebrates his goal
Jamie Brennan rubbed salt in Derry's wounds by scoring Donegal's fourth goal [Getty Images]
Conor McCluskey pictured after the game
Saturday marked Derry's first defeat in Ulster since a one-point loss to Donegal in Ballybofey in 2021 [Inpho]
Jason McGee celebrates with a fan
Jason McGee produced a titanic performance in the Donegal midfield [Getty Images]
Daire O Baoill
Daire O Baoill made Odhran Lynch pay with two perfectly executed chips [Getty Images]