By Mike Fitzpatrick
This was a shocker. Having won seven league games on the trot, Donegal were expected to waltz into this tie and shoot down the opposition. Donegal cruised through their league campaign this year, as they did last year and the year before. Unfortunately for the Ulster men, though, something else they did on those occasions was fall at the final fence. And this year they did it again.
Manager Donal Gallagher had got together an awesome team, blending youth with experience, but Leitrim didn’t seem particularly interested in Donegal’s merits. With only seconds gone on the clock of Sunday’s senior football semifinal at Gaelic Park, Kieran McDonald stole in behind a bewildered Donegal back line and scored an atomic-like goal to the astonishment of the Donegal supporters.
It was clear from this early stage that in no way were Leitrim going to lie down and McDonald should really have been marked more effectively as he is clearly a highly talented footballer with speed, stamina and skill in abundance.
The game threatened to erupt into a violent affair early on with heated exchanges occurring between the sides, and but for some intelligent refereeing, this could well have happened.
Sean Jones nipped in to score a point for Leitrim, quickly followed by an effort by Jim Donaghue after McDonald had unluckily hit the post following a good run. Donegal were in trouble and it took some opportunistic point scoring from Edmund Cleary and Leslie McGettigan to bring themselves a little back into the game. Donegal’s John Donnellan snatched a point for his side but Leitrim’s dangerman McDonald could not be stopped despite some good defensive work from Damian Meehan and Keith Nolan. McDonald seized upon a bad Donegal kick-out to hammer another point home and quickly added another before involving himself in the move that saw Marty McCribben hit one for Leitrim. Donegal’s Kieran Keeveney scored a free just on halftime, so that his side trailed by four points at the interval.
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Entering the second half, Donegal surprised nobody and proceeded to attack the Leitrim goal with venom, clearly missing in the first half. Cleary took a pot shot at goal only for Leitrim’s John Madden and Neville Dunne to collide while attempting to clear it. Luckily John McGuinness was on hand to tidy up. Cleary did get himself on the scoresheet again, however, with a point taken from a difficult angle. But then the "Kieran McDonald Live from the Bronx" show resumed. He shot two more points in and sandwiched in between was an effort from his teammate John Donaghue. With 20 minutes to go, Donegal’s John Donnellan scored for his side and Cleary also found a way through Leitrim’s seemingly impenetrable Leitrim defense.
Marshaled superbly by Neville Dunne, Cleary broke through on goal and fired in only to be denied by the fabulous goalkeeping of Joe Madden. McDonald, Kieran Treanor, John Meehan and John Donaghue all scored a point each in the latter stages of the game, where despite a determined Donegal attacking effort, Leitrim go on to the final.
Donegal: Eunan Doherty, Keith Nolan. Damian Meehan, John Finn, Donal Breslin, Owen Cummins, Jerry Kelly, Dave McSweeney, David Regan, Kieran Keeveney (0-1), Leslie McGettigan (0-1), Stephen Cassidy (1-0), Edmund Cleary (0-4), Lar Molloy, John Donnellan (0-2).
Leitrim: Joe Madden, Malachy McHugh, John O’Brien, John McGuinness, Neville Dunne, Mike Brosnan, Mickey Joe Hennessy, Jim Donaghue (0-1), John Meehan (0-1), John Donaghue (0-2), Kieran McDonald (1-7), Marty McCribben (0-1), Paul Hughes, Sean Jones (0-1), Kieran Treanor (0-1).