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Mayo were in a class of their own

Sean Rice

Sean Rice

A systematic destruction

IT is the unprecedented margins of their victories that staggers everyone. In all the various moods of Mayo football throughout history, no journey to a semi-final has been completed with such authority, their conquests so comprehensive.
They were to have been tested to the utmost by Galway and Roscommon, but so easily had they brushed their provincial rivals aside that Mayo’s true worth had not been proven. Donegal was to be the litmus test.
Now the Donegal myth has been dismantled and we are left with the incongruous truth that Mayo’s toughest opposition so far has come not from the expected channels but from the side to which least attention was paid  ... London.
From the opening minute on Sunday Mayo were in a class of their own, way above anything Donegal had to offer, hungry, passionate and perceptive. We held our breath as they took control from the outset, wondering was this anything more than a false start.
But the efficiency with which Cillian O’Connor and Alan Dillon claimed the opening points suggested there would be no return to the whirlwind start by which Donegal won last September’s All-Ireland.
This was a different Mayo and O’Connor was in a different mood as he stuck the ball in the net in the fifth minute to open up a five-point lead, which Alan Freeman increased to six before Donegal knew what hit them.
For a few nervy minutes, the All-Ireland champions seemed set to emerge from the opening vortex having pared back the lead to a single score. But no sooner had they begun to control that wobbly beginning than they were pitched back into the Mayo maelstrom with a goal of classic proportions.
In many ways it was the score that defined Mayo’s performance, shaped by the vision and imagination of Keith Higgins and Donal Vaughan.
Michael Murphy had just taken Donegal to within a goal of the Connacht champions when Higgins played a perfect pass to Vaughan who had ghosted around the Donegal defence. To the dismay of a back line that had brooked no incursion for so long, the Ballinrobe man had only to tap the ball into an open net.
It took the breath from Donegal. They had no answer to Mayo’s sweeping movements, to the creativity of Dillon, the mastery of Aidan O’Shea at midfield, the probing of O’Connor, McLoughlin and the excellent Freeman, and the single-mindedness of a defence that overshadowed the vaunted trio of Patrick McBrearty, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.
It took performances above the ordinary by every Mayo man to deliver the coup de grâce. Ger Cafferkey, outstanding as ever at full-back, flanked by the gritty determination of Tom Cunniffe and Chris Barrett, behind them the totally efficient Rob Hennelly and in front of them a trio of spectacular talent in Lee Keegan, Vaughan and Colm Boyle.
Vaughan’s attacking nous has been well documented, but on Sunday he defended in equal measure intelligently while making himself effortlessly available in every attacking stream.
We had wondered why James Horan and his back-room team had switched Keith Higgins to the half-forward line in the Connacht final, and now we know. In lining out on the left wing, the Ballyhaunis man displayed his versatility as a useful contributor to the attack.
He was scarcely settled in his new role when he was forced to return to the defence in place of Tom Cunniffe who had picked up an injury. Fortunately, it was a smooth transition and the defence never wavered as a result.
They did of course receive generous support from the two O’Shea brothers. Aside from his magnificent aerial display at midfield, Aidan also found time to filter back to kill off incipient Donegal attacks, completing an astonishing all-round performance on which neither Neil Gallagher nor Rory Kavanagh could make any impression.
He was unfortunate to be yellow-carded nine minutes or so into the match, but had sufficient self-discipline to blossom without further caution until the closing moments.
Without reaching the same aerial distinction, Seamus was no less effective alongside his younger brother. As always, tirelessly moving, spoiling, intercepting, providing, he left no one in doubt about the importance of his midfield role.
That goal of Vaughan’s provided the psychological security for Mayo to give expression to their breadth and vision. Dillon fed the wings beautifully and O’Connor and Andy Moran made space inside for those coming through the centre, especially the O’Sheas, the tireless Kevin McLoughlin and the half-backs.
O’Connor prowled dangerously on the edge of the box, and when Kevin McLoughlin dispossessed Neil McGee halfway through the second quarter, O’Connor’s first-time effort was diverted for a 45’ which the Ballintubber man duly converted.
There could have been a fourth goal before the break when Cathal Carolan, who had replaced the injured Tom Cunniffe, sliced through the defence, only to see his bullet rebound off an upright with the goalkeeper out of position.
Donegal were by now in disarray. Mayo switched attacks, stretching a defence totally unprepared for relentless onslaughts, yielding points by McLoughlin, Moran, Freeman, O’Connor and O’Boyle and building an unassailable lead of 12 points by the interval.
Left wide-eyed
Truly, it was all over then, the 60,000 attendance left wide-eyed at the systematic destruction of the All-Ireland champions. A backlash was to be expected as Donegal endeavoured to salvage some pride. But it was Mayo who struck first again after the break, this time Seamus O’Shea claiming the honour.
And then, tremendous work by Vaughan prised open the defence once more for O’Connor to crash home his second goal five minutes after the resumption. Four minutes later he struck again, this time the opportunity provided by Andy Moran, whose crack at goal came off an upright and onto the path of the young corner forward.
Twenty points in front, it was time to empty the bench. Time to give the playmakers a rest. Dillon and O’Connor and Moran were all called aside, their work done, and free from injury.
On came Richie Feeney (who had been listed to start on the ‘40’ but gave way to James Horan’s stratagem of starting Higgins in the half-forward line), Daren Coen, Enda Varley and Kevin Keane to polish things off and get the feel of victory into their system for the tougher battles ahead.
It was particularly pleasing to watch Keane shake off last year’s experience by joining in a foray to score Mayo’s 17th point.
After the 14th minute, when they scored their fourth point, Donegal remained scoreless for the remainder of the half, and the second half was over five minutes old before David Walsh had their fifth point.
Like James Horan, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness started Mark McHugh unexpectedly, who had been injured in the Ulster final, but no more than any of his colleagues, McHugh could not raise any sort of resistance to Mayo’s assertiveness. Almost from the start they were in a tailspin, and no amount of changing or chopping could reverse the trend.
They did put on a spurt near the end in a bid to retrieve some pride from the wreckage of their hopes, and a barrage of attacks brought out some brave and brilliant defending from the whole of the Mayo defence, Cafferkey especially fearless in denying them.
McFadden did eventually get their goal, three minutes from the end, the last kick of a dying dream.

Just a thought …
I CAN’T see the logic of the tirade pundit Joe Brolly launched against Tyrone’s Seán Cavanagh for his deliberate foul which denied Monaghan a goal in their quarter-final. The referee was to blame, not the player.