Energy and ambition can see Donegal end Mayo journey in Castlebar
All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Group One: Mayo v Donegal (tonight, Castlebar, 6pm, live on Sky Sports Arena)
WHEN Mayo put Donegal to the sword the last time these two counties shared a Championship stage, the Tir Chonaill men resembled a faded fighter in the final throes of a once great career.
Ducking, swaying, trying to avoid the knockout blow long after the speed and reflexes that made them such a formidable force had slowly but surely started to erode.
That was 2015, three years after Jim McGuinness led them to the summit. With every last drop squeezed to get back to an All-Ireland final in 2014, the descent was steep thereafter.
McGuinness was gone, and the legs of so many men who delivered the ultimate prize looked to be headed the same way when goals either side of half-time helped Mayo to an eight-point quarter-final win at Croke Park.
The following year Allstar forward Colm McFadden announced his inter-county retirement, so too Eamon McGee, with Karl Lacey and Christy Toye calling time in 2017.
Paul Durcan headed for Qatar and, although part of the panel again this year, hasn’t played for the county since, while Mark McHugh has yet to recapture the dynamic form of 2012.
Under Rory Gallagher, and now Declan Bonner, a rebuild was initiated as fresh faces were brought through from the talented underage teams Donegal has produced throughout this decade.
In came the likes of Jamie Brennan, Michael Langan, Niall O’Donnell, Jason McGee, Ciaran Thompson, Caolan Ward, Daire O Baoill, Oisin Gallen and more. Alongside the experienced heads of Michael Murphy, Neil McGee, Ryan McHugh, Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn, Leo McLoone and Patrick McBrearty, the Tir Chonaill class of 2019 oozes energy and ambition.
And as they head to Castlebar tonight, the roles have been reversed from that last Championship meeting with Mayo.
The Connacht men put everything into the push for that elusive Sam Maguire in 2016 and 2017, just coming up short both times, and now it is they who are covering up and attempting to old man opponents.
Can Donegal deliver the killer blow? All the indications are that they can, but then we’ve been here with Mayo before. As former selector Tony McEntee observed in these pages earlier in the week, they are a county prone to winning, and losing, when least expected.
Roscommon exposed their creaking full-back line to blast into a Connacht final while Down and Armagh both had James Horan’s men on the ropes at stages, only for Mayo’s big-game experience to see them through.
The injuries have mounted throughout the summer – to captain Diarmuid O’Connor, to promising young midfielder Matthew Ruane. Lee Keegan hobbled off against Armagh, Seamie O’Shea is only just back, Tom Parsons is close but not quite there, while they were without Cillian O’Connor until late on against the Orchardmen.
Somehow, though, they hung in there and produced the performance of their season in sweeping aside provincial rivals Galway to make it into the Super 8s.
Much has been made of the return of former boss Stephen Rochford, now part of the Donegal management team, to Mayo this evening, and the omens are not good if the last time they came up against an inside man is anything to go by.
Against Kerry, who count ex-Mayo coach Donie Buckley among their number, Mayo were like rabbits in the headlights as the Kingdom moved in for the kill in Killarney.
Their victory was founded on attacking and exposing one of the well-documented weaknesses in this Mayo side – David Clarke’s kick-outs.
For all his brilliance as a shot-stopper and under the high ball, his distribution has always been suspect and while the short kick-outs were hunted down, David Moran went after anything that went long in a dominant display.
Unlike tonight’s opposite number, Shaun Patton, Clarke doesn’t have that ability to pick out a man anywhere on the field with a bullet-like kick, tending instead to go high and zonal rather than hunting heads.
Although he kept his place against Meath a fortnight ago, it would be no surprise to see Rob Hennelly brought in, despite not featuring since that Connacht semi-final howler against the Rossies.
And where Mayo’s run to those consecutive All-Ireland finals under Rochford were founded on the intensity and fearlessness of their press, it has tended to be more conservative under Horan thus far.
On the days when they went toe-to-toe with the Dubs, they happily backed their defenders man-on-man against the boys in blue while going full court on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs.
As Donegal found out previously though, with each passing year it become more difficult to maintain that level. The physical toll taken has been evident, and Mayo will be rightly wary of the attacking gifts Donegal possess.
Mayo won’t want to leave themselves exposed against the pace of Jamie Brennan and Patrick McBrearty, if he starts (the livewire Oisin Gallen if he doesn’t), so are unlikely to push up on Patton’s restarts.
Kerry were made to pay for taking the same approach as Donegal created 31 scoring opportunities in an end to end game, the penetrating runs of Ryan McHugh and Michael Murphy from deep proving a particular thorn in Peter Keane’s side. James Horan must try and strike a balance between those two approaches.
The presence of Rochford in their corner ensures Donegal hold all the aces tonight and, with each day that has passed since, their high-scoring draw with Kerry looks more and more impressive.
They started against one of the country’s most potent forward lines without their two most experienced backs, McGee and McGrath (both injured), and lost the midfield pairing of Hugh McFadden and Jason McGee during the game.
Kerry had to shoot the lights out to break even in the end, while Donegal – in the kind of slippery conditions anticipated at a rainy Castlebar tonight – also kept their composure in front of the posts.
A draw would be enough to see them into a first All-Ireland semi-final since 2014 and, with Mayo having sailed so close to the wind so often this year, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the shares could be spoiled tonight.
Donegal would snap your hand off for that now, but they have the pace and power to go to MacHale Park and pile pressure on aging legs among the Mayo ranks and deliver a knockout blow. Donegal by three.