It may be late February but with a fierce edge on the field and a crowd of over 11,000 in the stands, yesterday’s scuffle could easily have passed for high Summer.
Donegal and Mayo have shared a tempestuous recent history and there was certainly no love lost between those in battle. This Donegal team’s finest hour came at the expense of Mayo but since then it is the men from Davitt country who’ve bossed the meetings. Going into the game with two league wins from two, Donegal generally might not have been majorly bothered about getting a third win but the opposition dictated their mood – they wanted this one.
It was tight and claustrophobic for long spells and the hosts took longer to settle with many of their main men struggling to put a stamp on proceedings.
Martin O’Reilly and Patrick McBrearty didn’t see much of the ball early on with Donegal finding it difficult to escape Mayo’s clutches around the middle third.
Most of Peter Boyle’s kick outs were won by the visitors and it is in these situations where Paul Durcan’s absence, in particular the big man’s laser like ability to find his teammates with short to mid range kicks, is most keenly felt. In the opening quarter, Donegal just needed an outlet ball to stem the tide but Mayo’s high press made it very difficult.
With so many switches around the middle third, Rory Kavanagh and Micheal Carroll were late additions to the starting line-up, Donegal seemed a bit at sea and this gave Mayo’s half back line licence and room to get forward. Shane Nally, Lee Keegan, and Brendan Harrison all got on the score sheet after running from deep.
Martin McElhinney’s introduction added some much needed ball-winning and ball-carrying finesse to the equation and he helped his side stay in contention at a time when they were clearly second best.
A majestic point from Ryan McHugh along with the free-taking of McBrearty and Michael Murphy meant Mayo were never more than a couple of scores ahead and the half finished with just the minimum between the sides.
Louis Van Gaal recently complained that the ‘Law of Murphy’ was afflicting his Manchester United team but we’ve no such objections in Donegal - Michael’s antenna was firmly back in tune, striking some crucial frees throughout.
Mayo impressed for long spells but there doesn’t seem to have been any major shift in their style of play since the appointment of Stephen Rochford. Granted, as a top tier team, it could be argued that they don’t need to alter things too much; to finally get their hands on the Holy Grail though they need to add another couple of strings to their bow.
Their game plan over the past few years has certainly caused plenty of trouble for Donegal, who can't quite seem to figure out how best to play against Mayo; a spell of three and a half years without a Donegal victory in the fixture tells its own story.
However, Donegal know if they can break Mayo’s first high line of defence then their pace and skill can reap rewards and that is why they persist in attempting to go through that green and red wall; easier said than done of course.
It's a high risk strategy that Mayo consistently employ and ultimately forms a large part of the testimony as to why this group haven’t got their All-Ireland – when it works it suffocates teams but when it doesn’t, they’re woefully exposed at the back.
And so it came to pass. Leo McLoone was the beneficiary, raising a green flag after a move which could have seen any of four Donegal players apply the finishing touch such was the overlap created.
It was a trademark ice-cool strike from McLoone, who was bizarrely described by James McCartan on RTE’s highlights programme as ‘not being noted for his finishing’. One of Leo’s more important Donegal goals came in the 2012 Ulster Final against Down.....any guesses on who was patrolling the side line at Clones that day? It was of course none other than, Mr McCartan!
Christy Toye played a vital role in setting up the goal, a key moment in the midst of what was an impressive cameo, similar to what he did against the same opposition in the 2012 All-Ireland Final.
That score finally gave Donegal a strong foothold in the game and they closed out proceedings efficiently in the remaining minutes.
As well another decent score line posted, the most striking number on Donegal’s side of the ledger was the seven yellow cards issued to them. Those cards, along with the black issued to Neil Gallagher, didn’t have a bearing on the final outcome and Barry Cassidy might well be a relieved man because of that. He undoubtedly would have come in for some stinging criticism had the home side been on the wrong side of the result such was his shortcomings.
Mayo’s first citizen recently called his people whingers but both sides were united in their moaning as the man in the middle was close to losing control of the game.
You can generally tell early on in a match how a referee will perform and whether or not they have a feel for the game; from the off, Cassidy’s decisions suggested he and the players were on different wavelengths. Mayo won two frees in the opening minutes following minimal contact in the tackle but their tactic of going to ground quickly earned dividends.
Donegal on the other hand appeared to be punished for their honesty; in their attempts to break that Mayo line of pressure, they kept pumping the legs looking to break tackles despite often being fouled in doing so. When the frees didn’t come, turnovers and a Mayo counter-attack was the usual consequence.
In isolation, each of the referee’s interpretations at either end of the field were legitimate but there was no consistency evident between one and the other and that’s what infuriates players and supporters alike.
Eventually Donegal’s frustrations came to a head after the award of the penalty but they subsequently used their narkiness to good effect to change the picture on the scoreboard.
Much of Donegal’s fine play in the opening two matches was attributed to the young guns but yesterday some of the old warriors were key to dragging their side over the line. As well as Toye, the introduction of Anthony Thompson at half-time proved crucial. A steadying influence in defence, he also powered forward and carried the ball with purpose and intent.
Kavanagh in midfield produced a massive display and showed what a coup it is to have him back in the fold.
One man stood out clearly from the rest though and that was Paddy McGrath. As might be obvious at this stage, the standard of punditry on national media, particularly from state broadcaster, is somewhat of a pet hate with this writer. So it was a pleasant surprise that TG4 managed to restore some faith in the art of analysis by selecting Paddy McGrath as their man of the match yesterday.
In truth it was par for the course from the ever reliable Ardara dynamo; he’s one of those players, much like Denis Irwin in his pomp, who consistently performs well and often plays brilliantly. Paddy displayed his usual terrier-like instinct as a marker, carried the ball wonderfully and injected pace into countless Donegal attacks.
Unfortunately he wasn’t able to register a first ever league point despite his endeavour getting him into some scoreable positions. It is McGrath’s default setting to make the piercing run before laying off to a team-mate, as he did for Murphy’s glorious late point, but a bit of work on the training field with Karl Lacey and we might see the marauding corner-back adding the finishing touch to his own good work.
There was immense satisfaction around MacCumhaill Park at the final whistle, perhaps even a sense of
smugness from the home contingent. It was an absorbing contest, you couldn’t take your eyes off it – quite literally for many a parent in attendance judging by the number of missing children announced over the loud speaker.
The net effect from yesterday in league terms is that Donegal have no worries about dropping to Division Two and barring a surprise will qualify for the semi-finals. More importantly though, the team laid down a psychological marker for the year by beating a fellow member of top the four.
Donegal sit on top of the table and what happens now is up to Rory Gallagher. Does he push on and challenge for a league title? Does he experiment with team selection and/or his game plan? Does he get the older panellists up to speed? Maybe it will be a case of all of the above. Either way, it’s a great position for the manager to be in as he prepares to pit his wits against the Kingdom next week in the land of Healy-Rae.