NO HOLDING BACK Mayo’s Conor Loftus has the fabric of his jersey tested by Donegal’s Anthony Thompson during Sunday’s National League match in Ballybofey.Pic: Sportsfile
ALL that was missing was a Mayo victory.
Almost everything else was there: the attitude, intensity, work-rate, defensive solidity and midfield powerplay.
However, for the third game in a row, the result proved beyond a Mayo team that is slowly and surely starting to look and play like their old selves.
Eight of last summer’s championship fifteen started last Sunday while five more joined the fray at various stages during the second half.
Ironically, the odd men out — Barry Moran and Cillian O’Connor — were the players Mayo missed most as they struggled to convert possession and territory into match-winning scores.
Instead they were overtaken by Donegal’s late storming run that meant Rory Gallagher’s team beat Mayo in a competitive fixture for the first time since the 2012 All-Ireland Final.
On a beautiful spring day at MacCumhaill Park, the key period in the game came in the last twenty-five minutes as Donegal outscored Mayo by 1-4 to 0-2 down the home stretch.
The Connacht champions had thrown everything they had in Donegal’s direction right from the throw-in, and when Diarmuid O’Connor converted a penalty on 45 minutes, were 1-9 to 0-10 up.
The huge Mayo crowd roared their approval and the old ground shook as a first ever victory for the visitors on Donegal soil seemed a real possibility.
The homeside were feeling the pinch and when Neil Gallagher was blackcarded for a hand-trip on Conor Loftus less than a minute after being introduced, the natives began to get restless.
Seconds later Loftus landed a huge score from long-distance to push Mayo three points up, and everything seemed to be falling into place.
However, Donegal have been working hard on the training ground over the last four months and a recent five-day camp in Tenerife has done them no harm either.
They got their second wind in some style at the end of the third quarter with a trademark ‘45m kick from captain, Michael Murphy, and a free by Paddy McBrearty sparking their revival.
The gap was back to the minimum with 57 minutes played and nobody seemed ready or willing to take a backward step.
It was fast and furious at that stage.
The game-changing score came soon after when Donegal managed to shut down Donie Vaughan as he gathered possession from a pre-rehearsed Mayo kick-out routine.
There seemed to be very little clear or present danger when Donegal secured the ball around halfway, but they broke hard and fast down the middle, cracking Mayo open.
The move ended with Leo McLoone lashing the ball past Rob Hennelly to turn the game on its head.
Donegal were in front again, and they never looked back.
Mayo did respond with a booming ’45 from Hennelly but there was little in the way of an attacking threat to go with it.
Instead, Donegal picked off a couple of crucial points from Murphy (his only score from play) and McBrearty (free) to put some clear daylight between the sides again.
And once Donegal had Mayo at arm’s length in the closing minutes, they had the tools and the experience to keep them there.
Starved of possession, time and space, all Mayo could come up with was a single point from Seamie O’Shea on his return to action for the first time this year.
There was no shortage of honest effort and endeavour, but a lack of guile, allied to some understandable fatigue, meant Mayo never looked likely to catch the winners napping.
The tone and tempo had been set in the opening half as both teams set the rules of engagement good and early.
Mayo bolted out of the blocks and were 0-4 to 0-2 ahead after 13 minutes as Evan Regan (two frees), Aidan O’Shea and Shane Nally all rattled off scores.
Mayo were operating with seven defenders and had posted Keith Higgins (captain for the day) in their attack.
But the homeside were on level terms for the first time by the 21st minute after Michael Murphy knocked over his second free of the day and Rory Kavanagh pointed on the run.
Three times Mayo went ahead during the second quarter and, on each occasion, Donegal reeled them back in.
The pick of the scores was a beauty from Lee Keegan and a stylish response from Ryan McHugh, but Mayo nicked the lead on the stroke of half-time when Brendan Harrison galloped upfield to loft one over.
It was 0-8 to 0-7 at the short whistle, and all to play for.
The second half turned out to be just as frenetic but, in the end, Donegal had enough in reserve to keep Mayo at bay.
Things won’t get any easier in Monaghan next Sunday.
P Boyle; E Doherty, N McGee, P McGrath; R McHugh (0-2), E McGee, E McHugh; O MacNiallais (0-2), M Murphy (0-5, 2 frees, 2 50s); R Kavanagh (0-1), F McGlynn, H McFadden; M Carroll, P McBrearty (0-4 3 frees), M O’Reilly.
Subs used: M McElhinney for Carroll (19 mins); A Thompson for Doherty (half-time); N Gallagher for McFadden (45 mins); C Toye for N Gallagher (46 mins black card); Leo McLoone (1-0) for E McGee (50 mins); C Ward for M O’Reilly (69 mins).
R Hennelly (0-2 1 free, ‘45); B Harrison (0-1), G Cafferkey, M Hall; L Keegan (0-1), C Boyle, S Nally (0-1); T Parsons, J Gibbons; D O’Connor (1-0, pen), A O’Shea (0-1), K McLoughlin; E Regan (0-4 frees), C O’Shea, K Higgins.
Subs used: C Loftus (0-1) for K Higgins (24 mins inj); A Moran for E Regan (49 mins); D Vaughan for S Nally (53 mins); C Barrett for M Hall (59 mins); S O’Shea (0-1) for J Gibbons (63 mins); J Doherty for D O’Connor (68 mins).
Referee: B Cassidy (Derry)