In first-half injury time, with Mayo having pushed their advantage over a spluttering Donegal from two points down to six up, Fionn McDonagh hit Donegal’s Jamie Brennan with a ferocious, fair shoulder to win possession right in front of a heaving Gerry McDonald stand.
The opening 35 minutes were encapsulated in that very moment. Mayo were first to balls they weren’t favoured to reach. The home support in the 27,023 crowd rose to their feet as the teams left the field. Mayo were doing what only Mayo can do.
James Horan’s team overpowered the Ulster champions, particularly in that opening half, and held on when they faced the wind as Michael Murphy, on his last day as a twenty-something, almost single-handedly kept his team breathing in the championship.
“I thought the application and work-rate was superb right through,” James Horan said afterwards.
“The turnovers we won in the first half and the tackles that guys put in, we didn’t get the return we should have, and that’s always a concern. Going into the second half, we knew Donegal were going to come at us, and they did.”
Donegal couldn’t have complained at being 1-7 to 0-4 down at half-time. And although Declan Bonner’s side got it back to a point down in the 51st minute — 1-9 to 1-8 — when Murphy scored a galvanising point, after Shaun Patton had saved at the other end from from Andy Moran, moments later Patrick Durcan popped over a reply to keep daylight between the two teams.
Midway through that second half, between the 53rd and 60th minutes, Donegal missed six scoreable chances in a row — five wides and a Murphy free that dropped short. Each had a deflating effect. Donegal made chances, but their inaccuracy sapped the hope. Donegal kicked 10 wides in the second half and 14 in all. Mayo had a dozen themselves.
With Tom Parsons named on the subs’ bench, Durcan’s reintroduction following his recent injury was also pivotal, turning the tide on Ryan McHugh and scoring three points in the process.
Moran was summoned from the bench on 24 minutes to augment Mayo’s attack. Donegal were creaking from the get-go with Paddy McGrath only back from a groin strain and none of Neil McGee, Eoghan Ban Gallagher, and Jason McGee available.
Having posted 2-39 in their last two Super 8s outings and 1-24 in the Ulster final win over Cavan, Donegal posted two points in the first three minutes. Patrick McBrearty, who was deemed fit to play despite being a hamstring concern, and Niall O’Donnell were the scorers.
Mayo took a little while to feel themselves in the game. Each passing point, though, brought with it a louder roar. Durcan, Cillian O’Connor, Chris Barrett, Jason Doherty, and James Carr all scored to move the hosts 0-6 to 0-3 ahead. Donegal were forfeiting possession time and again but somehow were only a kick of the ball down, despite coming up short on a vast majority of the head-to-heads.
Patton, after an uncharacteristically poor kick-out, had to make an early stop from Darren Coen when O’Connor won possession. Robbie Hennelly, at the other end, lost his first two from the tee but did well in place of David Clarke.
Mayo struck for goal on 28 minutes as Cillian O’Connor snuck in around the back to slap home a dropping ball from the boot of Aidan O’Shea, whose influence was growing from deep. Durcan added another score right on the half-time whistle.
Donegal weren’t going to be able to edge their way back into this knockout in increments, and Murphy stepped up to rifle home a penalty in the 43rd minute. 1-8 to 1-5. Game on?
On 54 minutes it was down to a point, 1-9 to 1-8. Suddenly, with the wind, it looked on for Donegal but their poor kicking would cost them dear. With McBrearty, Brennan, substitutes Oisin Gallen, and Eoghan McGettigan kept under wraps, Daire Ó Baoill did join the attack to post two scores.
Mayo, too, missed a couple of late chances — Keegan with one in particular when he broke with purpose, only to slice wide — but always carried a threat. Moran’s two injury-time points were enough.
“Andy Moran, Kevin McLoughlin, Fergal Boland, James Durcan when they came on, I thought they were very strong for us and gave us an out-ball,” Horan added. “We’re delighted overall with the performance and the win.”
Another chapter in Mayo’s never-ending story. With Mayo, there’s always one more day.
Cillian O’Connor (1-4, 4f), Patrick Durcan (0-3), Andy Moran (0-2), James Carr (0-2), Chris Barrett, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin (0-1).
Michael Murphy (1-4, 1-0 pen, 2f), Patrick McBrearty, Niall O’Donnell, Daire Ó Baoill (0-2).
R Hennelly; C Barrett, B Harrison, K Higgins; L Keegan, C Boyle, S Coen; A O’Shea, S O’Shea; F McDonagh, J Doherty, P Durcan; C O’Connor, D Coen, J Carr.
E O’Donoghue for Higgins (black card 15), A Moran for Coen (26), K McLoughlin for Doherty (45), F Boland for Carr (66), M Ruane for S O’Shea (71), J Durcan for O’Connor (76).
S Patton; P McGrath, E Doherty, S McMenamin; R McHugh, D Ó Baoill, O McFadden-Ferry; H McFadden, J McGee; C Thompson, N O’Donnell, J Brennan; P McBrearty, M Murphy, M Langan.
L McLoone for McGee (10), P Brennan for Doherty (32), C Ward for McGrath (42), O Gallen for Thompson (55), E McHugh for Brennan (black card 63), E McGettigan for R McHugh (73).
David Gough (Meath).