Photo: @JMelvinConTel via Twitter
The men from the Hills arrived to Elverys MacHale Park to face Mayo in the final NFL Division One game of the year. The game had so many possible outcomes for six of the eight teams in the division that ranged from Mayo being relegated on one hand, or progressing to a league semi-final on the other.
We’ve been here before, of course, and the much improved performance from our lads in Cork last weekend had done much to have the Mayo contingent in the large crowd, stated at 12,304, hopeful of another good showing and the two points that would see us in Dublin next weekend in a semi-final decider.
Donegal lined out as per the programmme in a strong experienced side that even without their captain Michael Murphy still had an impressive look to it. Mayo on the other hand were forced into a number of changes to the starting fifteen that was named on Thursday evening. Out went Tom Parsons and Alan Dillon and in came Seamus O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor respectively. An even later change saw Brendan Harrison come in for Ger Cafferkey before the throw-in.
David Coldrick started the match and Donegal, playing with the aid of a gentle breeze into the bacon factory end, started like a house on fire that saw them two points up, both scored from play, inside the opening 52 seconds! It was to be their last score, however, for the next 17 minutes.
Jason Doherty scored in the second minute from a free and Barry Moran pointed from play three minutes later. In between these two scores was the heartening sight of Eamon McGee being dosed with his own medicine. McGee had followed the roving Aidan O’Shea right from throw-in and had displayed his vast repertoire of cynical tactics in order to put Aidan off his game. Aidan, had other thoughts, and when Coldrick had his back turned he dropped McGee to the deck where he stayed, holding his face, for a couple of minutes. Job done.
Ronaldson and Lacey picked up yellow cards in the seventh minute and for the next ten minutes the game saw Mayo generally dominate possession, run into the deep lying Donegal defence, struggle to get through and then be counter-attacked at pace by Donegal. Keegan kicked a wide, Donegal responded with two of their own. Seamus O’Shea kicked a wide and MacNiallis did likewise.
Vaughan picked up a yellow in the 14th minute and Doherty pointed a free two minutes later. McLoughlin pointed a beaut from 30 yards out after being picked out by a fabulous Kirby pass where he drifted wide under the stand, won a long direct ball and drilled a pass cross-field to Kevin who tapped over unmarked. It looked like Mayo were getting to grips with the game and beginning to force the agenda.
But, in the next six minutes Donegal hit 1-3 without reply and Mayo were getting ragged. The Donegal goal resulted in direct running through the middle after building from the back, using quick hands and an overlapping runner with a sharp finish high to the Mayo net. Quick, incisive, efficient and direct … everything that the Mayo attack was struggling to be.
Mayo hung in, though, and responded with three points from play in six minutes from Barry Moran, Vaughan and Aidan O’Shea. A wide from both sides saw the first half finish Mayo on seven points to Donegal’s 1-5. Mayo kicked three wides to Donegal’s four and our defence had restricted them to 1-3 since the first minute.
Some notable talking points from that half were the misplaced final balls for Mayo. On four occasions as we counter-attacked the final pass was intercepted by Donegal defenders as we choose to run into congested areas of the field. However, when Donegal did likewise on three occasions they got scores from that tactic, one of them being the goal.
A notable change from the Horan era was the sight of Mayo holding back two half-backs as cover to their two-man full-back line. Mayo were determined not to be opened up on the counter as they had been against Tyrone and Dublin. Also, the early influence of MacNiallis and McElhinney had faded as Seamie and big Barry got up and running.
Michael Conroy came on for Ronaldson for the start of the second half and immediately Mayo were on the back foot. For three solid minutes! It was as impressive a display of defensive shape, discipline and structure that I have seen from a Mayo unit in a long time. Donegal went through phase after phase after phase of possession, probing and moving from side to side but it was all to no avail as eventually their efforts at goal resulted in a wild swing from McBrearty that went wide. The communication between the Mayo defence, the alertness and the “passing off” of Donegal attackers as they came into a zone was very, very pleasing to see. This will stand us in good stead for the year ahead.
Barry Moran got his third of the day in the 40th minute, O’Malley put a ’45 wide and Donegal had a goal ruled out for a push in the back of Higgins. Jason Doherty pointed from play in the 43rd minute, a score that put us in front fro the first time.
Seamus O’Shea was growing into the game and was at his tenacious, muscular best as his defensive duties were best exemplified when he tracked back his marker, harried and harassed him into losing the ball and then dived and blocked the resultant effort on goal. He looks like he thrives on dirty physical contact and he was in his element at this stage. Hugh McFadden was black carded in the 44th minute and, at this point of the game, Mayo were the fresher dominant side and the game was ours to win.
But as has been so often with Mayo over the last four years, just when we have our opponent at our mercy, we let them off the hook. In the next six minutes Mayo kicked three wides from as many attacks compared to a McFadden point in the 53rd minute, their second shot on our goal in the half!
Mickey Conroy and Kevin McLoughlin both then pointed from play and Donegal responded with two of their own from play also. However, an unbelievable decision from Coldrick denied Mayo what would have been a tap-over free and a black card for the offender. Instead he decided that Diarmuid O’Connor should have been able to carry the three Donegal defenders on his back as he made his way to goal.
The crowd booed the decision of the Meath man and, to make matters worse, the inaccuracy of the Mayo forwards worsened as Kevin McLoughlin missed a simple free and Mickey Conroy kicked two wides from play. Eventually, a McLoughlin pointed free ended the 12-minute scoreless drought but another Mickey Conroy wide and a black card, correctly so, for Vaughan had this observer feeling that today was not going to be our day.
I felt we needed a goal to be certain and we never looked like getting one. Even when we had a 2 v 1 counter-attack in the 70th minute with Keane and Durcan sallying up the field we failed to raise a flag of any colour. Instead, the effort fell tamely into the keeper’s hands and, what could have been the winning score, was gone. Instead it was left to Donegal, amid all the fists, off-the-ball sledging, wrestling and total confusion from the officials, to work the final chance, two minutes into added-on time, and score the equalising point.
Mayo have no-one to blame only themselves. The platform that our midfield created in the second half – where Barry Moran was immense! – provided enough ball to our attack to win two games. The inability of the full-forward line to retain the ball in danger areas resulted in us kicking from our half-forward line. The defence was structured and disciplined, turning over ball on five or six occasions. The half-back line were terrific and Harrison counter-attacked at will. I’m afraid when the game was there to be won, between the 44th to 53rd minute, Mayo kicked it away.
We have a number of quite weeks ahead of us instead of one or two much needed competitive matches. I hope management have a few shooting drills lined up otherwise it will be a short summer.
Mayo: Kenneth O’Malley; Brendan Harrison, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan (0-1); Barry Moran (0-3), Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-3, one free), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Jason Doherty (0-2, frees); Mark Ronaldson, Danny Kirby, Diarmuid O’Connor (0-1). Subs: Michael Conroy (0-1) for Ronaldson, Stephen Coen for Harrison, Andy Moran for Kirby, Mikey Sweeney for Andy Moran (blood), Patrick Durcan for Boyle, Neil Douglas for McLoughlin.