STROKING IT HOME Cillian O’Connor is pictured scoring the only goal of the game from a first-half penalty. Pic: Sportsfile
AN uplifting performance after the break secured Mayo’s status in the premier division. Having trod a fine line all through the league, Mayo finally nailed down a crucial win at MacHale Park that looked beyond them at half-time when, having played with the help of the strong wind, they trailed by three points.
It was a rather dispirited Mayo that trooped off the pitch at the interval. None of the fire they produced the previous week at Omagh was to be seen. The listlessness of previous games had returned. There was no appetite to take on Donegal, no fight, no beef in their challenges.
Hunting for the points to qualify for the final, Donegal were dominant everywhere. With Michael Murphy directing operations in the middle of the field and the forwards and half-backs finding acres of space, it seemed only a matter of time before they raked in the winning points in the second half.
Mayo needed to make full use of the strong wind, and Cillian O’Connor crashed home a penalty after five minutes. Together with points by Andy Moran and Danny Kirby, that steered them into a lead of four by the seventh minute. They looked like a side that meant business.
But for the remainder of the half, two further points was the sum of their effort – one each from Shane Nally and the great Colm Boyle. Donegal reclaimed primacy and slowly, methodically, turned the screw.
Michael Murphy, named at full-forward, but powerfully effective at midfield, together with Ciaran Thompson, led the Donegal offensive. And all of them moved with such pace that Mayo were forced to bat them off without much direction to their clearances.
Murphy accounted for four of their 11 points, and helped in no small way to set up Thompson, Jamie Brennan, Michael O’Reilly and Frank McGlynn for the vital scores that had them leading by 0-11 to 1-5 at the interval. Having invented it, their 15-man defensive strategy had lost none of its effectiveness.
Boyle dropped out at the interval and was replaced by Stephen Coen. In, also, for the second half came Diarmuid O’Connor in place of David Drake.
To be sure, it was a determined Mayo that took the field for the second half, and although Lee Keegan availed of a splendid break by Kevin McLoughlin to snap a quick point, Donegal responded with two of their own by wing forward Cian Mulligan.
Four points behind, time to call in the heavyweights. And no sooner had Aidan O’Shea been sprung into action in place of Danny Kirby than the fire was lit in more ways than one. As ever, the big man became the target of Donegal’s ire.
Like moths to a flame he attracted them, won most of his duels with them and disrupted their rhythm. Tempers flared. Four yellow cards were brandished. Donegal got rattled. Mayo were suddenly breaching their impenetrable walls, winning frees and scoring freely.
Just before corner back Eamonn Doherty was red-carded for kicking O’Shea, Keith Higgins (as ever an exemplar of intransigence) stoked the fire of their recovery with a brilliant point under pressure.
The pendulum had now swung the other way, reflected in Donegal’s total of two points for the half. Mayo were enjoying almost total supremacy. Cillian O’Connor, hampered earlier by inaccuracy, found the target from frees, Shane Nally, Coen, Paddy Durcan, Keegan, Diarmuid, Jason Doherty and the tireless Kevin McLoughlin piled on the pressure from every angle, and Donegal’s mastery was suddenly reduced to shapeless attempts to find their way out of trouble.
The recovery was accomplished rather painlessly in the end and it might be asked what was all the fuss about. Good as it was, their victory cannot paper over the flaws of the first half that must be ironed out if championship dreams are to be realised.
D Clarke, K Higgins (0-1), C Barrett; C Boyle (0-1), L Keegan (0-2), P Durcan; T Parsons, D Kirby (0-1); S Nally (0-1), F Boland, D Drake; K McLoughlin, A Moran (0-1), D Drake, C O’Connor (1-5, 1-0 pen, 0-4f).
Subs used: S Coen for Boyle; D O’Connor for Boland; A O’Shea for Kirby; J Doherty for Moran; D Vaughan for Drake; C O’Shea for Nally.
MA McGinley; P McGrath, N McGee, E Doherty; EB Gallagher (0-1), K Lacey, F McGlynn (0-1); J McGee, M Murphy (0-4, 3f, 1 45’); C Mulligan (0-3), M Carroll, C Thompson (0-2); M O’Reilly (0-1), J Brennan (0-1), H McFadden.
Subs used: R McHugh for McFadden; P McBrearty for Lacey; M McHugh for McGlynn; M McElhinney for McGrath; M Langan for J McGee.
Referee: C Reilly (Meath)