Donegal punish the Derry high press to run in four goals in a classic Jim McGuinness ambush

Three goals directly from kick-outs make a fool of Derry goalkeeper Odhran Lynch as the visitors pull off a shock with echoes of their 2014 win over Dublin

Ulster SFC quarter-final: Donegal 4-11 Derry 0-17

So now we know. All through the spring when we wondered what Jim McGuinness would have up his sleeve, we never guessed it would be the ghost of an ambush past. On Saturday night in a Celtic Park bowl that was packed and sunny and everything an Ulster Championship coup should feel like, Donegal ran in goal after goal to bring Derry whistling back down to earth.

If you think you’ve seen this movie before, it won’t take you long to thumb through the library to find it. For Celtic Park 2024, read Croke Park 2014. Just as Donegal had done to Dublin back then, they used Derry’s high press against them here.

Three of their goals came directly from long kick-outs, all punishing Derry goalkeeper Odhran Lynch for pushing up into midfield. When Donegal won the breaks under each contest, they had multiple outriders sprinting at the Derry goal and options everywhere you looked. Lynch was made to look foolish for each one. Not the first player to suffer that fate at the hands of a McGuinness team.

“The kick-outs are almost everything in the game now,” said the Donegal manager afterwards. “It’s incredibly difficult to shut goalkeepers down and a lot of teams are looking at that and looking at having options B and C. A lot of teams have those options – Derry did serious damage against Dublin over the top themselves.


“We did damage today. They’re just moments in the game. Sometimes that ball drops to you, sometimes it drops to them. We put a lot of time and effort into trying to make them work.”

Mickey Harte has now faced off against McGuinness four times in championship and lost them all. As you’d expect, he waved off any idea afterwards that his team had become so beguiled by the idea of an All-Ireland that they’d taken their eye off Ulster. But when you don’t convince yourself that this is the only day that matters, you open the door for an opposition that does.

You want a flavour of what Donegal brought to the day? Ciaran Thompson lined up at centre-forward wearing the number 32 jersey – his number eight got torn in the warm-up. They came to Celtic Park with no sense of inadequacy or limit. Derry might be the best team in Ulster right now but since when has that ever counted for anything?

The goals shaped the day. The Donegal led by 0-4 to 0-3 on the quarter-hour when Brendan Rodgers got a fist to a Shaun Patton kick-out and Ryan McHugh was quickest in to snaffle the break. With Lynch having pushed up himself to make an extra body around the middle, Derry were now short of one in the most important spot on the pitch. Dara Ó Baoill took his time and picked his shot beautifully, lobbing the back-pedalling Derry keeper with precision and sending the visitors into a four-point lead.

Game on. Ethan Doherty, excellent for Derry all evening, responded with an immediate point and the place hummed from there to half-time, keeping the capacity crowd of 14,714 in thrall. Harte sprang Gareth McKinless and Niall Toner from the bench early and both had an effect. But Shane McGuigan couldn’t get into the game and Conor Glass was having no real effect either. Even so, Donegal only led by 1-7 to 0-9 at the break.

And then it happened again. A long kick from Patton, a gentle tap down from Aaron Doherty, Ó Baoill away in a hack. Lynch had sprinted back harder this time but to no avail, his despairing dive only hastening the ball’s passage to the net

For the first time all year, Derry were being made to face up to their own mortality. Donegal were steaming into everything now and it wasn’t long before the final dagger came. Niall O’Donnell ran at Chrissy McKaigue, dipping his shoulder and drawing the foul. Oisin Gallen buried the penalty and now it was 3-8 to 0-10 with 44 minutes on the clock.

And then it happened again, again. Donegal had even changed goalkeepers in the meantime, Gavin Mulreany coming on for Shaun Patton. And once again, Lynch couldn’t help himself, this time jumping to contest the kick-out himself. The ball squirted loose, Donegal won the break and this time it was Jamie Brennan, freshly arrived off the bench, who finished to the net.

“Donegal were definitely sharper,” said Harte afterwards. “Sharper for the second balls, sharper for the turnovers. Obviously we got caught badly for the kick-out over the top, we knew it was a distinct possibility but we felt we had enough people back there to deal with it.

“You have to review everything and certainly the things that cost you, you have to review. It doesn’t say that it’s not the right thing to do, there are days when it will be an effective method. Obviously today was one where it wasn’t.

“It’s a danger when there’s a person on the other side with a boom of a kick-out, then you’ve got to adjust your positioning and all of that. It’s a risk-reward thing and the risk far outweighed the reward for us today.”

Derry: Odhran Lynch; Conor McCluskey, Chrissy McKaigue (0-1), Diarmuid Baker; Conor Doherty (0-1), Eoin McEvoy, Padraig McGrogan; Conor Glass, Brendan Rogers (0-2); Ethan Doherty (0-4), Ciaran McFaul, Paul Cassidy (0-2, one mark); Niall Loughlin, Shane McGuigan (0-4, two frees), Lachlan Murray (0-1). Subs: Niall Toner (0-1) for Loughlin (28 mins), Gareth McKinless (0-1) for McGrogan (29), Emmet Bradley for Murray (50), Donncha Gilmore for McKaigue (57), Eunan Mulholland for McFaul (66).

Donegal: Shaun Patton; Mark Curran, Brendan McCole, Peadar Mogan (0-1); Ryan McHugh (0-2), Caolan McGonagle, Shane O’Donnell; Ciaran Thompson (0-1), Michael Langan; Ciaran Moore (0-1), Niall O’Donnell (0-1), Daire Ó Baoill (2-1); Jason McGee, Oisin Gallen (1-3, one penalty, two frees, one 45), Aaron Doherty. Subs: Gavin Mulreany for Patton (56 mins), Jamie Brennan (1-0) for A Doherty (57), Patrick McBrearty (0-1, free) for O’Donnell (59), Odhran Doherty for McGee (66).

Referee: David Gough (Meath)

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times