Going into today’s final round of this year’s League there were two potential routes open to us for preserving our Division One status. For long stretches of this afternoon’s combustible clash with Donegal it looked as if we were going to have to rely on the fall-back option of Roscommon beating Cavan to keep us up. Eventually, though, we looked after our own business ourselves, coming from four behind to beat Donegal by two points, thus guaranteeing us yet another campaign of top flight spring football next year.
The first hint I got as to the size of the crowd assembling at MacHale Park came at the end of my drive down from Dublin this morning. Approaching the town on the N5 just after midday, there were already scores of DL-registered cars parked up and pointed for home, with plenty of Donegal supporters streaming towards the ground.
Inside, with ninety minutes still to go to throw-in, the stand was already filling up. It was no surprise that the start-time was eventually put back due to crowd congestion, the ten minutes or so head-start given to the other matches meaning that we’d know exactly what we’d need to do in our game, with, one hoped, sufficient time left to do it, by the time play had ended elsewhere.
Our confident start, playing with a strong wind into the bacon factory end, gave us early hopes that we’d resolve the issue of our top tier status without too much fuss. True, Donegal got the first two scores of the day but we then hit back with 1-2 without reply.
Ref Cormac Reilly was only greeted by a tepid bit of booing when his name was read out over the tannoy ahead of throw-in. When he awarded us the softest of penalties – Cillian O’Connor may have been impeded by the Donegal ‘keeper but I’m not sure he was and it didn’t look like it happened inside the large parallelogram either – it looked like he was intent on getting the home crowd on his side.
Cillian smashed the penalty to the net. He then launched a speculative ball into Andy Moran, who won it brilliantly, turned and shot over. Cillian followed this up with a screaming long-ranger. Not to be outdone, Danny Kirby arrowed over a beauty from out under the stand off the outside of the boot to shoot us four clear.
At that stage, an easy win for us appeared the likely outcome. The visitors didn’t panic, though, and a Murphy free followed by one from play by Thompson steadied them.
We hadn’t finished with the long-distance boomers, though. Shane Nally took aim and let fly to edge us back three in front.
That score came around midway into the half but we wouldn’t score again until just before half-time. In the meantime, Donegal hit us for six points without reply and then, following a point for us by Colm Boyle, hit us for another one on the stroke of half-time.
Three down at the break, things weren’t looking hectic. We’d lost our way in attack, struggling (in a depressingly predictable way) to punch through their blanket, our attacks either ending with a misplaced ball – typically a badly directed kick-pass into the cover – or a poor pot-shot at the posts. Then Donegal would break at speed, cutting through our porous backline and over the bar would go the ball.
We made two changes at the break. Fergal Boland – who again today struggled to make an impact against Ulster opposition – was replaced by Diarmuid O’Connor (who was named to start but didn’t, with David Drake lining out instead) and Stephen Coen came on for Colm Boyle.
We could have had a goal right after the restart. A lightning fast downfield move ended with Lee Keegan attempting to palm the ball to the net but it was deflected over. Donegal still didn’t look bothered, with points from Murphy and Mulligan shooting them four clear.
We looked in serious trouble then. The only good news – with many in the crowd now more interested in their smartphones than what was happening on the pitch – came in the form of dispatches from Hyde Park, where the Rossies held a narrow lead over Cavan. It was their thumping of Cork last year that ultimately had a decisive impact on our Division One survival twelve months ago. Would we be faced with the mortification of having the Sheepstealers to thank again for keeping us up again?
Nothing for it, then, but to tip Aidan O’Shea into this battle. Up till then, Michael Murphy had been by far the most dominant influence on this contest. Once Aido took the field, however, this all changed. It also ratcheted up the tension out on the park several notches.
The hits had been hard enough right from the off – with the tempo in the contest more akin to championship than humble spring fare – but now they began to get out of hand. Soon the inevitable happened and a right ruckus broke out in front of the stand. As so often happens in such circumstances, Aidan was the magnet for the opposition and he took at least two clear punches to the head, one administered by midfielder Ciaran Thompson right in front of umpire Maurice Deegan.
When things had calmed down (sort of) ref Cormac Reilly brandished yellow cards to four players – Aidan included – despite the fact that (a) a number of punches had been thrown and (b) these had to have been seen by the officials.
Let’s get the officiating issue out of the way here. First, Cormac Reilly proved yet again that he’s not competent to ref a game at the highest level. Today, just like Limerick in 2014, the match spiralled out of control and Cormac, lord love him, was powerless to do anything about it. He’s not up to the job, end of.
Second, Maurice Deegan has to be one of the most useless specimens every put on this earth. He had to have seen Aidan take several clear punches, he had a clear duty to get the ref to act on this but nothing happened. As an official, Deegan is less effective than a wet tea towel.
What the schemozzle did, though, was alter the course of this battle. The huge crowd – the official attendance was just over 14,000 – put away their smartphones, the home followers at last finding their voice.
On the restart, Keith Higgins wriggled into space and fired over. The comeback was on.
Then all hell broke loose again. Donegal’s Eamon Doherty tangled with Aidan and seemed to catch him in the nuts in the process. I thought it was accidental but was told later – which the TV coverage laster confirmed – that Doherty had kicked him in the privates. The ref obviously thought so too as the Donegal corner-back was gone on a straight red.
Now we really upped the ante. Cillian popped over the resultant free – a close-in one (he’d already missed a few further out, on what was another iffy day from placed balls from him) – and he scored the next, from another placed ball, with Donegal now resorting to increasingly desperate fouling to keep us out.
But they couldn’t. Lee Keegan curled over a gorgeous score on the run to haul us level. With the extra man, we kept them pinned right back and broke over them in waves every time we turned the ball over. Two more frees, both converted by Cillian, were the scores that won it for us. Not a pretty win but a hugely satisfying one all the same.
So, despite all the ups and downs of this spring campaign, we’ve ended up collecting eight points over the seven games, only missing out on a final place on points difference. Survival was always the main target and this we achieved, albeit once again not without plenty of drama. But sure where would we be without the theatrics?
Today’s display was, in many respects, the whole League campaign in microcosm. Great in spots, awful at other times, but ultimately with enough heart and fight in us to chisel out the required result. And not having to rely on the Rossies either made it all the sweeter.
Mayo: David Clarke; Brendan Harrison, Keith Higgins (0-1), Chris Barrett; Colm Boyle (0-1), Lee Keegan (0-2), Paddy Durcan; Tom Parsons, Danny Kirby (0-1); Shane Nally (0-1); Cillian O’Connor (1-5, penalty goal and four frees), Fergal Boland; Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran (0-1), David Drake. Subs: Diarmuid O’Connor for Boland, Stephen Coen for Boyle, Aidan O’Shea for Kirby, Jason Doherty for Moran, Donal Vaughan for Drake, Conor O’Shea for Nally.
Post-match audio report:
Man of the Match poll:
Who was our MOTM against Donegal?
- Aidan O'Shea (45%, 325 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (15%, 106 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (8%, 59 Votes)
- Cillian O'Connor (7%, 52 Votes)
- Shane Nally (5%, 35 Votes)
- Tom Parsons (4%, 28 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (3%, 20 Votes)
- Paddy Durcan (2%, 17 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (2%, 15 Votes)
- David Clarke (2%, 12 Votes)
- Danny Kirby (2%, 12 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (1%, 8 Votes)
- David Drake (1%, 8 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (1%, 7 Votes)
- Stephen Coen (1%, 6 Votes)
- Conor O'Shea (1%, 6 Votes)
- Andy Moran (0%, 2 Votes)
- Fergal Boland (0%, 2 Votes)
- Diarmuid O'Connor (0%, 2 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (0%, 1 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 723