Long after the final whistle and Donegal boss, Declan Bonner, was trying to process how his side were caught on the line in Saturday night's Allianz League opener in Ballybofey.
Eight minutes into the six that were signaled of injury time had elapsed and Bonner's side led by three points. The full-time whistle was mere seconds away.
Then James Durcan found an opening, shrugged off the challenge of Conor Morrison, and let rip. The ball took a slight deflection off the hand of Michael Murphy, just enough to edge it past the despairing dive of Shaun Patton and into the top corner for the unlikeliest of draws.
“It’s very disappointing," Bonner said afterward. “We’re disappointed with our defending in their last play. Someone should’ve taken a black, red, whatever. I thought we were the better side and we should’ve been more up at half-time. We conceded two sloppy goals but there’s still learning here for these young lads. A team of Mayo’s calibre .... they were always going to come back in.”
Donegal were relegated two years ago - by an injury-time Kevin McLoughlin score as Mayo also came back from three down – when they had climbed into their shell to protect themselves. On Saturday, perhaps they showed that little bit of inexperience is still in their bloodlines.
The late deflection as he stood on the edge of his own square was more than unfortunate for the selflessness of one of the sport’s greatest attackers, who didn’t score from play but was exemplary from placed balls, scoring eight in all.
The reason Mayo were in the contest towards the latter stages was because of Donegal’s poor first-half shooting. It will be the focus for Bonner and his backroom team ahead of Sunday’s visit to Navan. Those disappointments can be partially offset when he assesses the sharpness of tackle, turnover and break. All that was missing was the finish, although a deflating end to anything tends to cloud over what positives went beforehand.
Donegal led 0-9 to 1-4 at the break with an opportunistic goal from James Carr keeping Mayo in touch. Carr was not challenged by Caolan McGonagle, the only Donegal player in his vicinity, from a dropping ball that came off the boot of a wayward Patrick Durcan. Carr opted not to call the mark and instead turned to lob Patton with an audacious effort.
The Ulster champions missed a run of chances in that first half – eight wides and four short, with Eoin McHugh also striking the upright – but scored five in a row towards the end of the opening period to go in two up. Jamie Brennan intercepted a kick-out from David Clarke, only to fire of an open goal.
The second half tip-toed into life. James Horan’s strong bench saw McLoughlin introduced for a hobbling-off Carr, before Tommy Conroy, Aidan O’Shea, Keith Higgins and James Durcan were also thrown into the fray. Donegal, through Murphy in particular, were keeping Mayo at distance and Clarke saved well, low down from Peadar Mogan. Far from spectacular but showing more intent, Mayo were keeping in touch. Just.
With Brian Reape having gone off, the Connacht side were swapping the free-kicks, two of which Durcan scored as well as a point from play.
They clung on and clung on; finally grasping Donegal’s coattails in the 78th minute.
“Being three points down, five or six into injury time,” manager James Horan said afterwards. “They had a free that bounced over the bar and Michael Murphy was kicking a lot it’s a point gained. We’re delighted. We kept showing and sometimes you get a slice of luck and maybe we got it. The subs that came on did well and they kept showing. We’re delighted."
Scorers for Donegal: M Murphy (0-8, 6f, 1m, 1 ’45), C Thompson (0-4, 3f), J Brennan (0-2), P Brennan, C McGonagle, M Langan, R McHugh, A McClean (0-1 each).
Scorers for Mayo: P Durcan (1-3, 2f), J Carr (1-0), F Boland, K McLoughlin (1f), D O’Connor (1f), B Reape (1f) 0-2 each, T Conroy 0-1
DONEGAL: S Patton; C Ward, N McGee, E Gallagher; O McFadden-Ferry, C O’Donnell, P Brennan; C McGonagle, M Langan; Eoin McHugh, R McHugh, J Brennan; C Thompson, M Murphy, P Mogan.
Subs: H McFadden for McGonagle (38), B McCole for McFadden-Ferry (58), A McClean for P Brennan (62), J Mac Ceallabhuí for McHugh (64), C Morrison for McGee (66).
MAYO: D Clarke; O Mullin, B Harrison, C Boyle; P O’Hora, S Coen, P Durcan; T Parsons, J Flynn; B Walsh, D O’Connor, F Boland; R O’Donoghue, B Reape, J Carr.
Subs: A O’Shea, K McLoughlin and T Conroy for Parsons, Reape and Carr (h-t), K Higgins for Walsh (58), J Durcan for Boland (66).
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath)