Donegal collapse allows Conroy to pinch a point
THIS was as bizarre as they come, a madcap game that stretched the borders of unpredictability, and left the teams level on the scoreboard but greatly divided emotionally.
Donegal led by nine points at half-time and were coasting along; Mayo were a mess. It was easy to imagine disgruntled calls for John O'Mahony's head. Oh ye of little faith! Mayo outscored Donegal 1-8 to 0-3 in the second half and the county's balloon of optimistic filled up again.
O'Mahony talked afterwards of pride being restored in the jersey but he's around too long to know that much work remains to be done. Donegal left the field understandably shell-shocked and will rightly feel they blew it.
Having come off a bad beating in Kerry, they thundered into Mayo. Michael Murphy, listed at left corner-forward but roving all over the place, drove two large stakes through the visitors' hearts with a double goal strike in the first half.
Nine points behind at half-time, Mayo looked goosed, and the precedents weren't favourable. Donegal had won the last three league meetings, including the 2007 final, and never lost at home to the westerners in this competition. Last year they won with a goal from a defender, Eamon McGee, deep into injury-time. Yesterday their luck ran out. Mayo came late and substitute Kieran Conroy, who replaced the yellow-carded Ronan McGarrity, scored the equaliser three minutes over time.
What either team will learn from it, or how much they'll benefit, is another matter. Mayo's half-time crisis, trailing 0-5 to 2-8, and having lost Alan Dillon to a groin strain, looked beyond fixing. They came in low on morale after losing to Derry and showing poorly in a challenge with Cavan last weekend. One win out of four games had followers worried that O'Mahony's third season was showing little trace of the improvement demanded.
They moved Andy Moran to wing-back, hauled off Pat Kelly, who had started in the left corner, and sent on Mikie Sweeney in a bid to steel a shaky full-back line. But the changes that came after had even more telling effect, especially Pat Harte's introduction for Billy Padden 10 minutes after the interval. Padden had scored Mayo's first point of the half and didn't look too pleased but Harte's arrival was justified. He was immense and helped transform Mayo around the middle of the field. Mark Ronaldson was another player to come off the bench and make a positive impact.
But Donegal will be kicking themselves. Murphy, who had to leave before the end injured, had the ball in the net a third time before Harte's introduction only for John Bannon to rule out the goal, deciding he had been in the small square. The move that led to it opened up Mayo, Donegal walking the ball in and no one could have foreseen what was to follow.
Stephen Griffin had a pointed free, one of five, in the 41st minute, reopening their nine-point lead, and then Mayo took over.
The catalyst was a really well-worked goal three minutes later, started and finished by Barry Moran who finally got free of the attentions of Neil McGee. Sweeney landed an audacious score almost immediately and then Trevor Mortimer crashed a shot off the crossbar, getting a point as consolation. Mayo were within a goal of Donegal and 20 minutes left to play.
Griffin had a point to break the sequence and McGarrity went off after committing one foul too many. Yet Mayo were undeterred. Barry Moran and Conor Mortimer, with two scores, reduced the lead to one inside the final 10 minutes and they would be given a last chance to rescue themselves after Donegal sought to retain possession and play out time. Conroy was in the right place and held is nerve to finish with the final kick.
Donegal, having made five changes from the defeat in Kerry, will be glad to see Murphy make such a strong impression in his first match back after injury.
Colm McFadden looked more of a blunt instrument after coming on late in the game, having been laid up by injury, while they wait for the return of Kevin Cassidy and possibly Brendan Devenney.
Mayo will wake up in better form and O'Mahony should have a better idea of where his strengths and weaknesses lie.
Scorers -- Donegal: M Murphy 2-0; S Griffin 0-5 (fs); C Bonner 0-2; E McGee, D Walsh, M Doherty 0-1 each. Mayo: C Mortimer 0-6 (4fs); B Moran 1-1; P Gardiner, A Dillon (f), B Padden, T Mortimer, M Sweeney, Kieran Conroy 0-1 each.
Donegal: M Boyle; D Walsh, N McGee, P McDaid; F McGlynn, B Monaghan, E McGee; N Gallagher, C Bonner; R Kavanagh, C Dunne, D Walsh; M Doherty, S Griffin, M Murphy. Subs: B Boyle for Dunne (45); C McFadden for Murphy (inj 59); E Wade for McGlynn (61); K McMenamin for Walsh (68); L Thompson for Doherty (70)
Mayo: D Clarke; L O'Malley, G Cafferkey, D Vaughan; P Gardiner, T Cunniffe, P Kelly; T Parsons, R McGarritty; B Padden, T Mortimer, A Dillon; C Mortimer, B Moran, A Moran. Subs: B Kelly for Dillon (inj 27 mins); M Sweeney for Kelly (h-t); P Harte for Padden (40); M Ronaldson for Parsons (42); K Conroy for McGarrity (yellow card, 55 mins)
Referee: J Bannon (Longford)