Donegal suffer Super 8 D-Day disappointment again as Mayo summon indomitable spirit
All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Group One: Mayo 1-14 Donegal 1-10
BALLYBOFEY last summer was a sore one. The better team for most of the day, and seemingly in the box seat heading towards the last, only to have the rug whipped from under them at the death by their biggest rivals in the modern era.
There was silence as they filed onto the bus behind the stand at MacCumhaill Park; a kind of stunned numbness. As the weeks and months passed, though, and 2019 lurked over the other side of the hill, a period of introspection could at least offer some shafts of sunlight where it had seemed there was only shadow.
A first Ulster title since the remnants of Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland winning side managed one final heave two years on. Tyrone temporarily knocked from their perch after starting the year with a third Anglo-Celt on the bounce in their sights.
And, crucially, an emerging crop of energetic youngsters to supplement one of the most solid spines in Ireland. The Red Hands may have had their day in Ballybofey, but the men from Tir Chonaill would catch them in the long grass. Just you wait.
Twelve months on, the song remains the same – and that’s the problem. Another Ulster title in the bag. A convincing win over Tyrone along the way, so revenge of a kind. Yet, for the second year in-a-row it is Mickey Harte’s men who head on into an All-Ireland semi-final while Declan Bonner is left to pick up the pieces.
Do you think Tyrone care about that Ulster semi-final defeat to Donegal now? Do you think Donegal give two damns about that victory now? No, and no.
And where they could clutch at positives from last year’s Super 8 disappointment – relatively young team, caught by a sucker-punch in the end – it will be hard to salvage anything from the wreckage of Castlebar on Saturday night.
The worst criticism you can inflict upon any team is that they were bullied out of it. Tactically out-thought? Okay, lessons to be learned. Bad day in front of the posts? It wasn’t to be, we’ll be better next time.
But out-fought when there was an All-Ireland semi-final place at stake? That will be a tough pill to swallow through the cold winter months.
And let there be no doubt, it was men against boys at times. After a decent start, scoring the first couple of points, Mayo honed in like a herd of hyena. For all the talk of having ex-Mayo boss Stephen Rochford in their corner, Donegal looked leggy and lacked any real idea of how to curb the Mayo momentum.
Perhaps the exertions of the season so far, as well as a growing injury list accumulated in recent weeks, had taken its toll at precisely the wrong time.
The warning signs were there just five minutes in when Donegal forced a turnover from a Shaun Patton kick-out, and needed their goalkeeper to get them out of jail as he saved Darren Coen’s goal-bound effort.
As the first half wore on, so Mayo grew in belief, thundering into every tackle – an Aidan O’Shea shoulder on Michael Murphy registering a solid seven on the Richter scale and drawing gasps of breath around a ground that had been pretty much full two hours before throw-in.
The vociferous home support was given plenty to chew on during those early exchanges as Jason Doherty and the two O’Shea boys ruled the skies, pinning Donegal back time and again.
The Tir Chonaill men lost midfielder Jason McGee 10 minutes in, the hamstring injury that forced his early exit against Kerry a fortnight earlier coming back to haunt him. They missed his aerial presence.
Even when Mayo lost Keith Higgins, black carded after hauling down Paddy McBrearty, they weren’t fazed. Lee Keegan was trailing Michael Murphy wherever he went, the relentless Paddy Durcan was not only keeping Ryan McHugh quiet but actively forcing him onto the back foot, landing two classy scores before half-time into the bargain.
McBrearty and Brennan were being well shackled by Brendan Harrison and Chris Barrett respectively, though McBrearty wasn’t moving as freely as usual, seemingly feeling the effects of the hamstring injury that threatened to rule him out altogether.
For Brennan, it has been a disappointing end to a campaign that he illuminated at provincial level. His Super 8 experience was summed up when a McHugh fisted pass bounced off his back as he advanced towards the square, the goal at his mercy, in the 26th minute.
The clever movement of James Carr was causing problems for Odhran McFadden-Ferry, while the introduction of Andy Moran for the ineffective Darren Coen proved a masterstroke, the 2016 player of the year leading the line superbly from then on.
Cillian O’Connor’s 29th minute goal, palming home a mishit Doherty effort when the ball looked destined for Patton’s hands, completed an unanswered 1-3 as Mayo took control, leading by six at half-time.
Murphy led the charge after the break as Donegal bounded out to the field first, Hugh McFadden and Murphy finally starting to get a handle on Rob Hennelly’s restarts as they piled on the pressure.
The Tir Chonaill captain soon roamed into the square, with Keegan following suit, his pull on Murphy’s jersey seeing referee David Gough signal for a penalty. When Murphy slotted home to the opposite corner found against Kerry, it was game on.
Every restart was now met by bouts of pulling and hauling as temperature soared in the rain. And when Murphy turned onto his left foot to reduce the deficit to a point with 18 minutes left, he and McBrearty turned and roared into each other’s faces. The wind at their backs, nothing could stop them now.
Well, nothing except themselves.
That momentum, so bravely wrestled from Mayo, was thrown away as Donegal kicked five consecutive wides. As each one missed its target, so a little more energy sapped from already tired legs.
Aided by a force of nature performance from the superb Aidan O’Shea, Mayo regained their composure to an extent, though they too were guilty of spurning a succession of chances in both halves.
They should really have been well out of sight before Donegal even had the chance to clamber back up the cliff face, but then that wouldn’t have been very Mayo, would it?
Even Moran was guilty of passing up two easy opportunities before finally getting his eye in as the game opened up in the latter stages, drawing a huge roar from the crowd when he fisted over the bar a minute into the seven added. Mayo didn’t look back from there.
Their remarkable, rollercoaster summer moves on to the big dipper this Saturday night. Regardless of what has gone before, Jim Gavin’s men in Croke Park represents the greatest challenge for everyone.
But coming just six days after their bruising battle with Donegal, and facing a Dublin side who were able to mix and match their way through yesterday’s dead rubber in Omagh, that difficulty level moves into another stratosphere.
Pull this one off and immortality is surely theirs. Surely…
“Sure it would be just like us to beat the Dubs and then lose to Kerry in final,” smiled one delighted/downbeat supporter in the tunnel afterwards.
The Mayo people have no idea what is going to transpire from one week to the next, and either do the rest of us. That has been the beauty of their journey so far and, as Mayo look ahead to an incredible eighth All-Ireland semi-final in nine years, it is incumbent on us all to enjoy every second of it while it lasts.
Mayo: R Hennelly; B Harrison, C Barrett (0-1); C Boyle; S Coen, K Higgins; L Keegan, A O’Shea, S O’Shea; F McDonagh, J Doherty (0-1), P Durcan (0-3), D Coen; C O’Connor (1-4, 0-4 frees), J Carr (0-2). Subs: A Moran (0-2) for D Coen (25), K McLoughlin (0-1) for Doherty (45), F Boland for Carr (65), M Ruane for S O’Shea (70), J Durcan for O’Connor (70+5)
Black card: E O’Donoghue replaced K Higgins (15)
Yellow cards: L Keegan (41), C Boyle (43), A Moran (51)
Donegal: S Patton; P McGrath, S McMenamin; H McFadden; E Doherty, O McFadden-Ferry, D O Baoill (0-2), R McHugh; M Murphy (1-4, 1-0 pen, 0-2 frees), J McGee; C Thompson, N O’Donnell (0-2), M Langan; J Brennan, P McBrearty (0-2). Subs: L McLoone for McGee (10), P Brennan for Doherty (31), C Ward for McGrath (41), O Gallen for Thompson (54), E McGettigan for Langan (72)
Black card: E McHugh replaced P Brennan (63)
Yellow cards: S McMenamin (20), H McFadden (43), L McLoone (66), O McFadden-Ferry (69)
Referee: D Gough (Meath)