Sport

End of an era for Donegal as Mayo march on to semis

Diarmuid O'Connor celebrates scoring Mayo's opening goal in Saturday's All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park
Picture: Philip Walsh 
Paddy Heaney at Croke Park

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-final:
Mayo 2-13 Donegal 0-11

THE most remarkable chapter in Donegal’s footballing history drew to a close at the weekend as the county’s senior team was ruthlessly dismissed by a stronger and sharper Mayo side.

And it’s extremely difficult to see the Tír Chonaill men recapturing the glory of 2012 any time soon. This is an ageing Donegal squad. Their list of veterans includes Paul Durcan (31), Christy Toye (32), Colm Anthony McFadden (31), Neil Gallagher (32), Karl Lacey (30) and Éamon McGee (31). Reports indicate that at least three of those outfield players are set to retire. It’s understood Paul Durcan is considering a move to Dubai, where he has been offered a job.

None of the aforementioned individuals owes anything to Donegal football. They played their part in an incredible story, which gave fresh hope to every underdog in the country. Unlike other counties that can rely on an organic process to produce players and finance, Donegal had to take a different approach. Moulded, inspired and whipped into incredible physical condition by Jim McGuinness, Donegal’s superior organisation and fitness allowed them to out-manouevre the big guns.

For a brief period earlier in the summer, it looked like Rory Gallagher was going to harvest one more trophy. But Ulster is a very tough battleground. By the time Gallagher had steered his team past Tyrone, Armagh and Derry, they were rich pickings for Monaghan. Not only have Donegal got a little older and little slower, the competition has also cottoned onto their tactics.

Mayo are a prime example. Under James Horan, the westerners refused to adopt the defensive systems which Donegal helped make de rigueur. In the 2012 All-Ireland final between these counties, two goals helped Donegal win the game, the first came from a high ball into Michael Murphy, the second was the result of a stunning counter-attack. On Saturday, it was obvious that Pat Holmes and Noel Connolly have absorbed the lessons of the past. Mayo are determined not to concede goals.

After Kieran Donaghy destroyed them in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo are particularly vigilant about protecting their full-back Ger Cafferkey. To assist Cafferkey with the job of stopping Michael Murphy, midfielder Barry Moran was stationed in front of the Donegal captain throughout the game. To ward against counter-attacks, Colm Boyle offered further protection as he guarded the central channel.

Defensively, Mayo are now a very different proposition to the side beaten by Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final replay in the Gaelic Grounds. Solid at the back and better equipped to stop goals, it was obvious from an early stage in this All-Ireland quarter-final that Donegal had a major battle on their hands.

Even though the score was 0-4 each after 21 minutes, there were signs in those opening exchanges that Donegal were going to struggle. Two of Donegal’s points were long range strikes by Michael Murphy and Christy Toye. Unable to breach Mayo’s defensive screen, they were forced to kick from distance.

In contrast, Mayo had the power and pace to engineer easier scoring chances. Lee Keegan supplied the pace while Aidan O’Shea provided the power. Keegan’s stunning speed helped him break clear and kick his team’s first two scores. A portent of the threat posed by Aidan O’Shea came towards the end of the first quarter. When Séamus O’Shea pumped an inviting high ball into his brother, the big full-forward out-fielded Neil McGee and was promptly fouled. Cillian O’Connor converted the tap-over free-kick.

The second quarter told the story of the game. Playing at corner-back, Éamon McGee didn’t appear to be fully fit. When Cillian O’Connor won a ball in front of McGee, he stole a yard of space and pointed with ease. It was most unlike Donegal.

Further signs that Donegal weren’t at their best came when the defence was opened up with a quick free-kick which put Jason Doherty through on goal. Kerry midfielder Darragh Ó Sé once commented that the patch of grass in front of the Canal End is always slippery and that observation sprung to mind when Doherty lost his footing as he rushed towards the goal. The Mayo forward had to settle for a point. In the 30th minute, Kevin McLaughlin stretched Mayo’s advantage to 0-7 to 0-4.

Donegal showed typical resilience. A foul on Patrick McBrearty produced a free that was converted by Murphy. Then came the moment which told us it wasn’t going to be Donegal’s day. A long kick-out by Paul Durcan created Donegal’s favourite move – the break from midfield. That’s how they destroyed Dublin last year.

As ever, Ryan McHugh made the initial incision. Ripping into the Mayo defence at full-speed, Donegal were in full-attack mode. McHugh fed Karl Lacey, who played the ball across to Colm McFadden.
McFadden’s shot was smothered by David Clarke, who was penalised for touching the ball on the ground. The resulting free reduced the gap to one-point, 0-7 to 0-6. More importantly again, Mayo had fended off Donegal’s most lethal attack. No goal was conceded.

No doubt Rory Gallagher would have been content if his team was only trailing by a point at half-time. But it wasn’t to be. The hammer blow was delivered in the 35th minute. Once again, the O’Shea brothers combined to devastating effect. Séamus supplied the pass while Aidan took the catch and slammed the ball past Paul Durcan. Donegal’s hopes of a comeback were thwarted immediately after half-time when full-back Neil McGee was forced to retire with an injury.

McGee’s injury would have crushed Donegal’s morale. A minute after McGee was helped off the pitch, man-of-the-match Lee Keegan killed the contest when he scored a fortuitous goal. Aiming for a point, Keegan’s curled shot dipped under the crossbar.

By the 46th minute, Mayo led by nine points and there was no way back for Donegal. The northerners showed commendable spirit as they refused to buckle. Michael Murphy was excellent while Paddy McGrath epitomised his team’s deep layer of pride and resolve. As the clock ticked towards Mayo’s inevitable victory, Donegal kept searching for a way back. McGrath and Martin McElhinney fashioned a half goal chance which was driven over the bar by Leo McLoone.

But it was merely window dressing. After 17 minutes without a score, substitute Andy Moran awakened Mayo from their reverie. When Michael Murphy won a ball in the 66th minute, he was immediately surrounded by three defenders. Unlike last year’s drawn semi-final against Kerry, the Connacht men were not going to allow a big full-forward to spoil their party.

Late points from Alan Freeman and Jason Doherty sealed Mayo’s comfortable victory. Next up is a meeting with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. Mayo will have to manage without Kevin Keane. The substitute defender was sent off in the 72nd minute for punching Michael Murphy. For the Dubs, the westerners could do with every defender they have.

 

MATCH STATS
Mayo: D Clarke;  T Cunniffe, G Cafferkey, C Boyle; L Keegan (1-2), D Vaughan, K Higgins (0-1); S O’Shea, T Parsons; D O’Connor, B Moran, J Doherty (0-3); K McLoughlin (0-2), A O’Shea (1-0), 
C O’Connor (0-3, 0-2 frees); Subs: C Barrett for T Cunniffe (33); R Hennelly for D Clarke (h-t); A Freeman (0-1) for S O’Shea (65); K Keane for G Cafferkey (70); Blood Sub: A Moran (0-1) for B Moran (60); Yellow cards: J Doherty (52); D O’Connor (54); K McLaughlin (72); Black card: D Vaughan replaced by P Durcan (53); Red card: K Keane (72).
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; M McHugh, K Lacey, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, C Toye (0-1); H McFadden, O MacNiallais, R McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy (0-8, 0-4 frees, 0-1 45), C McFadden; Subs: M McElhinney for C Toye (h-t); A Thompson (0-1) for N McGee (38); L McLoone (0-1) for O MacNaillais (39); Yellow cards: É McGee (43); L McLoone (61); H McFadden (63)
Referee: D Gough (Meath) 
Attendance: 61, 784

 

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