Frustration for birthday boy Michael Murphy as Donegal stall at quarter-final stage again
AS they made their way towards the gate at the back of the tunnel in MacHale Park on Saturday evening, working their way around the hordes of green and red supporters who had somehow penetrated the inner sanctum, Donegal heads remained bowed.
Michael Murphy stopped for waiting journalists, as he always does, but you could tell he would rather have been anywhere else on earth. The Glenswilly man turned 30 yesterday, yet there is unlikely to have been much celebrating done.
Okay, so Tyrone may get the heart thumping like no other, but this was Mayo. The same Mayo against whom Donegal had gone to war in those blood-letting challenge games either side of the 2012 All-Ireland final that was lit up by Murphy’s early moment of brilliance.
The same Mayo who had trampled a tired Donegal into the ground a year later, repeated the dose in 2015 and consigned the Tir Chonaill to a year in Division Two by snatching a late draw in Ballybofey on the final day of League action last year.
For the likes of Murphy, Paddy McGrath, Paddy McBrearty and the others who have revelled in that famous rivalry, what transpired in Castlebar will have hurt every bit as much as that gut-wrenching defeat to Tyrone in Ballybofey 12 months earlier.
“Not a bit,” said Murphy when asked if Mayo’s aggressive approach had come as a shock to the Donegal system.
“We’ve played them here before, we’ve played them in Ballybofey before, there’s a great rivalry between the teams.
“You look around at the quality of player they have and the quality of player they’ve introduced this year too, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with throughout the remainder of the Championship.”
There will be much soul-searching through the winter months after the anti-climactic end to a campaign that had promised so much.
Former Mayo boss Stephen Rochford had come on board Declan Bonner’s management team and all was well when the Red Hands were routed on the way to a second Ulster title.
Yet here they are again, out at the quarter-final stage, and left with a sense of standing still rather than pushing on.
“It’s hard to say at the moment,” admitted Murphy.
“We’ve failed at this stage now two years on the trot, but that’s football. That’s the level you’re at; it’s the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, it’s not Mickey Mouse stuff. Every mistake you make and every bit of weakness you have is going to be shown up.
“That was there today, and we need to go back to the drawing board. We’ve a young side there, I do still believe there’s tonnes of potential within the team, tonnes of potential within this squad.
“That’s why you keep going back to the well again and that’s what we’ll do. There’s a young enough team there and we’ve demonstrated there’s good enough footballers there.”
A season-ending injury to the dynamic Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher harmed Donegal’s Super 8 chances, while midfielder Jason McGee was forced out of the action in Castlebar after just 10 minutes.
Neil McGee broke down at training during the week and didn’t make it, while McBrearty – a doubt going into the game after picking up a hamstring injury – wasn’t moving as freely as usual.
Those injuries took an undoubted toll in the end, though Murphy insists much of this year was spent developing and improving the squad in the event of losing key men.
“We were battling with this over the course of the year, that we wanted to create a squad who were able to compete at this level when injuries did come.
“They came last year around the Super 8 time with Patrick [McBrearty] getting injured, and eventually they were going to come this year too.
“It’s just the nature of the beast, every team gets them, you look around the teams remaining and every team has an injury or two. Ours did come in the last couple of weeks and we threw bodies at it.
“By and large they performed very well in the Kerry game. The bodies that were out there were good enough to make a better performance at it and we failed to do that.”