Dara Ó Cinnéide: Donegal and Mayo can’t afford to lose this one

No matter how you look at it, this evening’s All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park between Donegal and Mayo will be an era-defining game.

These are two sets of players whose paths these past five seasons would mirror each other almost exactly except for the obvious fact that Donegal have won an All-Ireland and Mayo still don’t know what the view from the summit is like.

Whichever team loses today’s quarter-final will most likely shed a few players over the winter and return again in spring, still under the same management, still in the same high-performance environment and still in the top tier of inter-county teams.

But in another way things will never be the same again for tonight’s losers.

The age profile of Mayo’s leading players suggests that they’ll be around for another few years but, to paraphrase the bard, there is a tide in the affairs of all teams which needs to be taken at the flood if it is to lead on to fortune. This Mayo team have remained afloat over seasons of ultimate heartbreak, but more so this year than others there is a sense that they need to take the current or risk losing it all.

A few critical decisions from joint managers, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly could decide this game: If, as seems likely after last weekend, Michael Murphy plays a more advanced role, Mayo need to decide if they’re going to persist with their tactic of putting pressure on the opposition backs high up the field and leaving pockets of space behind. Or do they break the habits of a lifetime and retreat into a less frenzied, more structured defence of the patch in front of Murphy? The temptation to stick to what they’ve practised and to what they know is huge for Mayo. We need only look at the Cork football team over the years to see how hard it can be for a team with an embedded culture of running with the ball to become anything other than what they’ve always been.

Because Mayo have had some of the best ball-carrying half-backs in the game in Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle, as well as the fastest counter attacker in the game in Keith Higgins, it was always assumed that if you closed down the space in front of them, they would take a little bit too much out of the ball. Sadly for Mayo, it’s an assumption that often ended up a reality.

There have been signs, most recently against Galway in June, that Keegan and Boyle have been instructed to mind the house that bit more and while the half-back line scored 1-2 against Sligo, it is interesting, not to mention unusual, to note that none of the backs scored against Galway.

Whoever Mayo detail to follow Murphy around — and there have been suggestions that perhaps a converted midfielder might do the job — the half-backs will still need to expend much of their energy in double-teaming the Donegal captain the second he hits the ground.

Noel Connelly’s observation that big target men require the protection of referees just as much as smaller players has a certain element of truth to it, but, designed to help O’Shea, his preemptive strike could also work in Murphy’s favour at the other end.

Either way, O’Shea’s new role at full-forward is still only in its infancy. Whether or not Mayo persist with the tactic depends on three factors: (1) The success or otherwise of Cillian O’Connor as an attacking foil for O’Shea. (2) The amount of possession Tom Parsons and Seamie O’Shea can win at midfield. (3) The sort of scoring dividend the big Breaffy man can deliver before half-time.

Mayo won’t take much heart from the meanness of the Donegal defence against some of the top forwards in the country last year. Conor McManus, Jamie Clarke, Bernard Brogan and James O’Donoghue could only manage three points from play between them against Donegal at various stages of the 2014 championship.

However, in the early stages of their game against Galway last weekend, Donegal allowed small tidy players like Adrian Varley, Michael Lundy and Danny Cummins a lot more space than they usually do.

If one thinks back to the opening stages of the 2012 final between Donegal and Mayo, the contrast in Donegal’s defensive standards couldn’t be starker. In the memorable opening scenes of battle that day, eight minutes had elapsed before Michael Conroy became the first Mayo forward to win a ball that came into the Donegal half and it took a full 15 minutes before Mayo got their first score. I doubt either O’Shea or Cillian O’Connor are going to have to wait as long this evening and, even if they do, I imagine Mayo will get a better start than they did three years ago.

Aidan O’Shea’s reinvention as a full forward is perhaps an acknowledgement on Mayo’s part of the roles played by the big target man in their last three championship seasons. Michael Murphy, Eoghan O’Gara and Kieran Donaghy have all left their mark on the Mayo psyche, to such an extent that many Mayo followers now believe that good defenders such as Ger Cafferkey and Kevin Keane are ‘too nice’ or ‘too honest’ to be trusted under high balls.

It was probably a reflection on that game itself and on our perception of it, that we’ve sometimes accepted the notion that Mayo themselves were ‘too honest’ during the past few seasons. While one of James Horan’s greatest achievements was in making sure that every day they went out his players were no shrinking violets, it now appears that they’ve picked up on one of the harshest lessons of their semi-final defeat against Kerry last year — you also need to indulge in some of the darker arts to close out a game. Lee Keegan’s antics in the closing stages of the Connacht semi- final certainly showed a more Machiavellian streak that might have come in useful were it more in evidence in Mayo’s last season.

Donegal haven’t needed schooling in the ways of Machiavelli for a long time but there seemed a certain vulnerability about them during that 28-minute period without a score against Galway seven days ago.

Odhrán Mac Niallais, Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy rightly took the plaudits after the game but Frank McGlynn and Ryan McHugh were the only two players during this period who showed the boldness and dash required. There was something very strange about the three minute period of stasis between the 19th and 22nd minute of the first half when no Donegal player seemed capable of taking the ball at pace into frontier country as they did in the days of old.

Perhaps I have read the signs all wrong over the last few weeks and maybe Donegal will prove yet again they can tap into that magic. I’m just not convinced by the brilliance of the final 10 or 12 against Galway. There were two or three cusp moments in that game.

First, there was Paul Conroy’s missed free on 43 minutes. Shortly afterwards, came Finian Hanley’s failure to retreat, which gave Michael Murphy a more scorable free. The third and final blow was Cathal Sweeney’s miss on 58 minutes that could have given Galway the self-belief needed to get them over the line. After that, they were gone, and Donegal knew it.

The difference this evening is that following five Connacht championships in a row, Mayo won’t lack that self-belief.

If they play to their potential, they have enough about them to take down Donegal for the second time in three seasons.

In the other quarter final, Monaghan are in the unusual position of being under more pressure than their opponents. A second quarter-final defeat to Tyrone in three seasons would surely take the gloss off their magnificent achievement in winning two Ulster titles in the same period.

Monaghan’s ambitions stretch that bit further these days, and rightly so. In Conor McManus, they have the in-form forward of 2015 and even if Cathal McCarron does a decent job on him, as the season’s form defender, Shane Enright, did in the league in Tralee, McManus is still capable of leaving his mark on this game.

The key to this game for Monaghan is how Vinny Corey, Colin Walshe and Dessie Mone will limit Tyrone’s Darren McCurry, Seán Cavanagh and Conor McAliskey, an inside trio who are about to encounter the best defence they’ve faced since losing to Donegal in May.

If Monaghan can transfer their defensive form from Clones to Croke Park, they should have enough to set up a date with Kerry in a fortnight.

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