PPRECIABLE improvements on their previous performance still fell short of the standard required to deny Donegal their first National League title . . . and left Mayo in no doubt about the extent of the challenge they face in the championship.
The cynics – and there are plenty of them around – will claim that their championship chances have been badly dented by another final defeat in Croke Park, but the psychological scars of this latest disappointment ought to have no lasting effect when the players recall the amount of possession they won in the second half.
In that period of ascendancy, during which they clawed back a lead of three points, Donegal had begun to doubt themselves. And if Andy Moran had directed Mayo’s final point under the bar rather than over, they might well have taken their 12th league title.
Moran had been Mayo’s outstanding forward all afternoon, and you felt confident that when he latched onto Ger Brady’s delivery in the 59th minute the ball was destined for the net. Unfortunately, his screamer clipped the top of the crossbar, to his own distinct disappointment, and it was followed by a missed opportunity by Alan Dillon from a free. Mayo were then on a roll, and victory looked to be in sight.
But Donegal found inspiration in an eight-minute interlude caused, ironically, by an injury to one of their own, Ciaran Bonner, following a clash with David Heaney. When play resumed, almost on the stroke of normal time, Mayo had lost their momentum, and the revitalised Northerners grabbed the three winning points in injury time.
Donegal were the better side in the first half. Mayo’s slow start was no different from that of most of their league games. After eleven minutes they trailed by four points, and were being dragged all over the field by the rampaging forwards from the north. Were it not for the timely and brave intervention of David Clarke, that lead might have been swelled by a goal from Colm McFadden.
The cut and thrust of Brian Roper, playing at right-half forward, and McFadden in the full-forward line, caused endless difficulties for the Mayo defence, and not until the 12th minute were they able to lift the siege to create their first real attack. That ended with a wide ball from Conor Mortimer’s ‘45’ which had been forced by Andy Moran.
Donegal’s impetus was not created from the anticipated midfield source. Neither Neil Gallagher nor Kevin Cassidy ever mastered David Heaney or James Nallen, a last minute replacement for Kevin O’Neill. Both more than held their own in that sector, but the Mayo forward line as a unit lacks the physical power to complement their undoubted skill. On Sunday they were given little room to manoeuvre, yet they created more chances of goals that the opposition.
Moran belied the power argument. Less physically strong than most of the forward line, the Ballaghaderreen man drove himself relentlessly, and was the key to many of Mayo’s scores. His imaginative pass to Mortimer won their first score, in the 14th minute, and he was also the source of Mortimer’s second point, from a free, after he was fouled.
The swings of the game balanced out more evenly over the second quarter, and Mayo moved more menacingly. After McFadden restored Donegal’s lead to three points, a phase of Mayo attacks resulted in points by Alan Dillon and Pat Harte.
But although they won a fair amount of possession they had to work tigerishly for every score. Nothing was easy against the tough, spoiling tactics of the Donegal defence. Even so, Conor Mortimer did glimpse an opening in the 23rd minute, but his weak shot caused Paul Durcan in the goal no trouble.
Enda Devenney did make one of his few lightening runs but laid the ball off instead of taking his own score, and the chance was missed. To Ger Brady, however, fell the the best goal opportunity three minutes before the interval when he broke through on the left side of the goal, but hesitated while trying to pick his spot, and the shot was smothered.
Physically, Brady is the strongest of the forwards, yet the Ballina man is often reluctant to use that asset to his advantage, and loses possession too easily. Finesse is not his strong point, and he is capable of the wild as well as the spectacular shot. On Sunday he dropped the ball at crucial moments. He tried hard, but the penetrative power of which he is capable has yet to be put to full use.
Unlike other matches, no one ruled Mayo out of contention at half time even though they trailed by two points. But, as they had done in other games, they had lapsed into a three-point deficit a couple of minutes after the resumption.
Management had already replaced James Kilcullen (who was forced too far out field in pursuit of Michael Hegarty) by Aidan Higgins, but the Charlestown man was himself replaced later on in the second half.
Greater pressure on their defence was, however, causing some worry for Donegal. It stemmed mainly from midfield where possession in general was won on the ground rather than in the air, and most of that by Mayo. There were few clean catches around the centre, but Mayo had their share of them.
That strain on their defence forced Donegal fouls, first on Moran, then on Dillon, and from the resultant frees Conor scored twice. By the 41st minute the lead was cut to a point and Donegal were stretched to hold on.
Ciaran Bonner relieved them somewhat with a fine point in the 51st minute, but Conor was back on target from further fouls on Nallen and Moran. In the 54th minute, and for the first time, Mayo had drawn level.
And while substitute Kevin mcMenamon restored the lead for the Northerners, two minutes later, the game had more or less swung towards Mayo with Andy Moran’s point . . . which was so close to being the decisive score of the match. In the long break that followed Bonner’s injury in the 61st minute, Mayo lost their rhythm and three great points followed from a rejuvenated Donegal.
Defeat is always disappointing, even though Donegal were the form team. But while Mayo fell short of their objective, many of the flaws so evident in their semi-final against Galway had been eradicated. Their passing was better, the quick free more effective, and for the breaking ball they were vigilant and alert. Their tackling was also vigorous. But their slow start is a cause for worry, and from it on Sunday Donegal were allowed build too much confidence too early.
No All-Ireland is on the horizon, and the Connacht title will not be retained on this form. But the possibility exists . . . if their improvement continues at the same rate.
U-21 title surrendered tamely in the bitter end
THAT comprehensive victory Mayo enjoyed over Roscommon in the Connacht U-21 final did them no favours. No cutting edge was provided by Galway or Roscommon to meet the challenge posed by Laois. Long before they were reduced to fourteen men at Hyde Park on Saturday, Mayo were clearly struggling in the vital areas. Laois had won midfield, were more incisive in their raids, quicker to the breaks, quicker off the mark.
Mark Ronaldson appeared to herald a more vigorous Mayo in the second half when he tossed over the equalising point, a minute after the resumption. But less than two minutes later, tough-tackling wing back Colm Boyle was dismissed for a second yellow card offence.
At the same time the luckless Barry Moran lay writhing on the ground with an injured foot that may well keep him out of John O’Mahony’s championship plans. Barely back from a spate of injuries the Castlebar Mitchels man was stretchered off the field, and with him and O’Boyle’s dismissal went Mayo’s hopes of retaining the title they so brilliantly captured last year.
It would have been a tighter finish if neither incident occurred, but it is doubtful even with the full starting team if Mayo would have triumphed. Pat Holmes, Noel Connelly and Michéal Collins were confronted with an unenviable undertaking following that runaway victory over Roscommon. It was too easy for their charges and afterwards too difficult to disabuse them of the belief that they could not be beaten.