GAA Football

Returning stars can help Donegal seal survival against Mayo in relegation battle of Ballybofey

A virus forced Ryan McHugh, Mark McHugh, Odhran Mac Niallais and Martin McElhinney from the Donegal starting line-up against Monaghan last weekend, but they are set to return for tomorrow's do-or-die clash with Mayo in Ballybofey. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Neil Loughran

Allianz National Football League Division One: Donegal v Mayo (tomorrow, 3pm, Ballybofey)

YOU’VE heard the one about the irresistible force and the immovable object, right? Well what happens when the immovable object meets the other immovable object, but something simply has to give?

That is the situation in Ballybofey tomorrow where Donegal and Mayo face a shoot-out for Division One survival. The task is simple for Declan Bonner’s men – two points, nothing more, nothing less – while either a win or a draw would see Mayo avoid the drop.

And what a stay it has been, as the westerners have been in the top flight for 20 years; longer than any other county. However, there have been warning signs in recent times.

Last April their safety wasn’t secured until the last day, courtesy of a two point win over tomorrow’s opponents, while only score difference saved their bacon 12 months previous following a final day victory over Down.

That flirtation with relegation has now extended into a third year following last week’s surprising 12-point humbling at the hands of Tyrone in Castlebar. And this time they are in real danger.

Donegal don’t lose League games in Ballybofey, you see – not for the past eight years anyway as they are undefeated in the 19 fixtures held at Mac Cumhaill Park since 2010.

Four of those games have ended in draws, however, a fact Stephen Rochford will have taken note of as they make the journey north-west in need of a point at least.

But, given the nature of the hammering they received from the Red Hands last weekend, Mayo travel low on confidence following another League campaign that has ebbed and flowed in equal measure.

The real Mayo have tended to stand up in the white hot heat of Championship, proving themselves a match for anybody when the chips are really down. But, when it comes to League football, it has become increasingly difficult to predict what they might do.

Yet only a fool would doubt their ability to pull off yet another last day Houdini act.

If they do, it will be without 2016 player of the year Lee Keegan, who misses tomorrow’s game after suffering a dislocated shoulder against Tyrone.

A hamstring injury forced off Cillian O’Connor early on too and, as a result, Rochford is without two of his most influential figures on a day that will call for big personalities.

Andy Moran, though, is available for selection despite claims he should have received a straight red card, rather than black, for what was loosely deemed a barge on referee Maurice Deegan last weekend.

Paddy Durcan is expected to come in for Keegan, with Conor Loftus a likely replacement for O’Connor, while Donegal also look set to shuffle their pack after being left without a host of star names for the defeat to Monaghan in Clones.

Boss Declan Bonner said a virus had deprived him of Odhran Mac Niallais, Martin McElhinney and the McHugh brothers – Ryan and Mark – for the Farney clash, but all four are available for selection tomorrow.

There is also speculation that experienced full-back Neil McGee could be drafted in to the battle with last year’s beaten All-Ireland finalists, although Donegal’s defensive performance against Monaghan was a marked improvement on previous weeks.

It is at the other end where the Tir Chonaill need to be able to make Mayo’s fragile back line pay, and they must do it without star forward Paddy McBrearty, ruled out with a quad injury.

Michael Murphy, who operated mostly around midfield, still looks some way off his best, but the pace of Jamie Brennan and Niall O’Donnell caused Malachy O’Rourke’s men plenty of headaches, especially in the first half.

The return of Mac Niallais and Ryan McHugh in particular will be a huge boost and, with the crowd behind them, Donegal can put another W in the Ballybofey bank to seal their survival.

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