There are bad days and there are good days to be a supporter of the county team but today was something else entirely. Under James Horan we’ve become used to strong quarter-final performances and under him too we’ve become almost blasé about our ability to dump out the reigning All-Ireland champions but today’s utter destruction of Donegal was of a different order. If ever a performance represented a screaming declaration of intent, then this was it – Donegal arrived onto the Croke Park pitch as reigning All-Ireland champions but what the lads did to them over the course of the seventy minutes that followed meant they left it defeated and utterly destroyed. Because of it, we’ve now been installed as 5/4 favourites for Sam and it’s easy to see why.
In my wilder imaginings leading up to this game, I’d tossed around idle thoughts in my head that we might somehow do to Donegal something equivalent to what we did to Galway back in May but these were just that – idle thoughts – and I never really expected us to annihilate them in the way that we did. When it was announced just before throw-in that Lacey wasn’t going to start and that Mark McHugh was, it seemed apparent that this wasn’t exactly a stoke of genius by McGuinness but that it was instead a move borne of desperation. We had our own, well trailed, switch prior to throw-in, with Chris Barrett coming in at corner-back and Keith Higgins moving nominally to the half-forwards (with Richie Feeney dropping to the bench) but taking up a roaming role.
We hit them like an express train from the off and within five or six minutes led them by a devastating 1-3 to no score. Cillian O’Connor – who today became the first player ever to score hat-tricks in two successive championship matches and, incredibly, is still eligible for consideration for the YFOY award again this year – got the first and Alan Dillon smashed over a screaming second.
The next score, though, was when it first came apparent that we were intent on gutting them when we won a dirty ball on their end-line and Kevin McLoughlin lined it up for Cillian to pass almost nonchalently to the net. Alan Freeman confidently added our third point just after and we were six to the good.
Aidan O’Shea was already putting himself about with purpose at midfield – Aido was absolutely awesome today – but it was Donegal fans who had the next few reasons to cheer when a bouncer from Murphy from a free went all the way over and McHugh added a second, this one from play. As events transpired, it was their sole score from open play before the break.
Then, after Murphy got their third from a free, we hit them with another hammer blow at the other end. Keith Higgins, fed by Alan Dillon, opened them up with a very intelligent, long handpass to Donal Vaughan who evaded the flailing Durcan before, a bit like Salthill, rolling the ball into the net.
That, in truth, was the instant the game died as a contest – Donegal had worked hard to cut our six-point lead in half and now they were back at square one. They got the next one – another Murphy free – but we then shot seven further points without reply before the break, cutting them open again and again, breaking that bit more of their resolve with every score we got.
Impressive and all as that salvo was it could and should have been far worse for the champions as we missed two clear goal chances, one by Cillian and the second by Cathal Carolan (on as a sub for the injured Tom Cunniffe midway through the first half) which came back off the butt of the upright with Kevin McLoughlin then spooning the rebound wide. But such was our dominance that we were able – literally – to laugh off these misses as we ended the half an amazing twelve points ahead.
The game was well up for Donegal at that stage but Seamus O’Shea’s thumping opener soon after the restart was a clear hint to them that the pain wasn’t going to lessen in the second half. We kept pounding them and as we did so their heads dropped visibly as it began to dawn on them that not only were they going to lose they were going to be thrashed out the proverbial gate.
Two more Cillian goals followed – no marquee forwards on the Mayo team, eh? – and then Donegal’s miserable day went from bad to worse when Eamonn McGee got a straight red for a truly disgraceful, disgusting and cowardly stamp on sub Enda Varley’s neck. Now a man up, we were able to tear through them at will and, to be honest, it was a surprise that we didn’t add another goal or two to our tally before the end.
There were,though, some delicious moments to savour. Chief amongst these was the sight of Kevin Keane coming on and kicking a glorious point into the Hill end. It was a real classy move by James to bring him on when he did and the look of sheer delight on the Westport man’s face – flashed around the ground on the big screen – as he trotted back into position afterwards was truly heartwarming to see.
Our bench-emptying and the realisation that we’d posted enough to win three games finally saw a dip in performance from our lads in the closing minutes. We were a yawning 22 points up at one stage but the final winning margin was cut to sixteen with McFadden annoyingly (even more so because it came from a free that shouldn’t have been awarded, just one of Joe McQuillan’s bad decisions today) breaking through for a consolation goal. Small consolation it was, though, as Donegal ended up getting the worst scorching suffered by a team defending their All-Ireland crown in living memory.
We had heroes all over the place today and it was such a complete team performance that it doesn’t seem right to pick any of them out for special mention. Before doing so, then, it’s worth pointing out that we had an incredible fourteen separate scorers today, which shows just what an attacking threat we’re capable of posing and which augurs well for our hopes of going the whole way this year.
While we’re on the subject of the team performance, I think it’s only fair that the plaudits be extended to those sitting – and dancing – in the stands as well. The Mayo support today was big and raucous and they kept right behind the team until the final whistle sounded. Well done all who were part of this effort.
In terms of individual performances, Aidan O’Shea – who ended up getting sent off on a second yellow seconds before the end but because it was only a yellow he won’t miss the semi – was absolutely awesome today, utterly dominant around the middle, which he owned from start to finish. Riding shotgun with him, Seamie wasn’t far behind his kid brother in his contribution to the cause as he put in another big Croke Park display.
All of the backs were excellent. Tom Cunniffe started brightly but unfortunately went off injured, Ger Cafferkey was calm and assured, Chris Barret had a storming game – got a super second half point too – and wing-backs Colm Boyle and Lee Keegan took the fight repeatedly to the opposition. Donal Vaughan was, I thought, superb, driving up that central channel time after time and scoring that wonderful second goal.
In the forwards, Cillian – with his haul of 3-4 – was obviously to the fore but Alan Dillon had a real stormer and Kevin McLoughlin kept popping up to good effect all over the place.
Would you call Keith Higgins a forward? I’m not sure but he was excellent and he brought this excellence all over the pitch. Alan Freeman got well stuck in, took no crap off the McGees, and got a few nice points – here’s one of them – when we needed them. Andy looked a bit off the pace but he still got a trademark beauty of a point in the first half.
Of the subs, Cathal Carolan put in an enormously productive shift, including very nearly scoring a carbon copy of the goal he’d bagged on his championship debut against Galway, Richie Feeney was great the way Richie always is when he comes on in big matches, Enda Varley (who thankfully wasn’t hurt in that incident with McGee) knocked over a real screamer and Darren Coen was unlucky not to get his name on the scoresheet too, something which – as already noted – Kevin Keane so joyously managed to do.
The sole concern, really, was Rob Hennelly’s kickouts which were anything but assured, with this facet of our play jarring noticeably compared to the well-oiled performance elsewhere. This is only to be expected, though, given that Rob is only a wet week back on the scene and I’ve no doubt that there’ll be plenty of work done on this before we face Tyrone in three weeks time.
That’s the next challenge we now face, as we come down off the high we all experienced today. We’re priced at 2/7 to win that one but from what I saw of the Red Hand at Croke Park last night it’s clear that they’ll be tough, sticky opponents for us in the penultimate round. But we’re a tough, uncompromising outfit ourselves and we can and will head into that one with confidence that James Horan and his incredibly committed bunch of players will be aiming then to take another decisive step towards their ultimate objective. Who knows? We may have more magical days to savour before this championship campaign is over.
Mayo: Rob Hennelly; Tom Cunniffe, Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett (0-1); Lee Keegan (0-1), Donal Vaughan (1-0), Colm Boyle (0-1); Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea (0-1); Kevin McLoughlin (0-1), Keith Higgins, Alan Dillon (0-2); Cillian O’Connor (3-4, two frees, one ’45), Alan Freeman (0-2), Andy Moran (0-1). Subs: Cathal Carolan for Cunniffe, Richie Feeney (0-1) for Dillon, Enda Varley (0-1) for Moran, Darren Coen for O’Connor, Kevin Keane (0-1) for Boyle.