Moment of magic conjures up the essential difference
It was a monster of a match, 100 minutes of hardship, and in the end Donegal endured for just a few seconds longer, by a few metres more.
It was a game that had the texture of granite: two teams colliding with equal force of will and concentration and physical toil. Neither side flinched or blinked or weakened. It was two highly-trained units repelling each other over and over, in a recurring state of deadlock.
It seemed that for every time a team scored, they were beaten back another five times. Kildare would take the ball into the final third of the field, Donegal would shake them down and come away with it. Donegal would take it up to the final third, Kildare would shake them down and come away with it. If ever there was a game where scores were quarried, this one was it.
On and on it went, through a first half which was essentially an exercise in fuel reduction, like the first 5,000 metres of a 10,000m race, where nothing much happens but the ritual depletion of energy before the real contest begins.
Kildare had a miserly five points on the board at the end of that half. Donegal had a paltry two as it went deep into injury time. Then their playmaker Michael Hegarty managed to produce a moment of class that rose above the ubiquitous attrition. It wasn't particularly special either, and Hegarty has a sort of nonchalant style that doesn't generate much excitement. But it stood out because of its economy of effort in this maelstrom of pressure and endeavour.
He received the ball on the 45-metre line and well to the right of the posts. Inside, Mark McHugh was standing just yards from the endline and to the left of the posts. Both of them play for the same club. Hegarty looked up for an option and saw McHugh looking back at him. Instantly they both switched on. McHugh began sprinting, not out the field, but across the small square, parallel to the endline.
Hegarty's delivery was perfectly weighted for height and length. It had a hang time of three seconds, giving McHugh enough time to reach it. And it dipped behind a scrambling defender while dropping just short of the endline. McHugh caught it, laid it off, took the return and slotted the point. This single play taught several lessons: keep the ball moving; the value of simplicity; how a blanket defence can be beaten. It was also, in passing, a reminder of one of the joys of team sport: telepathy, communication without words, players in harmony speaking their own language.
The game began to loosen up in the second half. But it's all relative: it was a jamboree compared to the first half, but still claustrophobic compared to most other games. Up and down, over and back, chipping away at the wall of white at one end, the wall of yellow at the other.
Out of the blue, a Donegal goal. The easiest score of the match. Then Kildare, hanging on, scraping with their fingernails for the scores that would save their season. Three points were dredged to take the teams into extra-time.
On and on they went, Kildare finding a surge from somewhere to take them three in front early in the second half of extra-time. Maybe they relaxed, thinking this late injection of pace had finally burned off their opponents. Or maybe it had burned up their own last reserves, leaving them utterly empty for the last ten minutes.
But it wouldn't have mattered if the other team had finally decided that enough was enough: we can do no more. Kildare had played like a team that needed this result right down to their bone marrow. It would have been enough against almost any other side. It was their misfortune to meet a team that needed it just as much. And so, Donegal refused to break. They came raiding for the three points and got them.
And in injury time of extra-time it was Kildare who finally succumbed. It was symbolised in that poignant moment when Hugh McGrillen, magnificent all summer, slipped as he advanced to close down Kevin Cassidy deep in the Donegal defence. He tried to get up but instead collapsed. He lay there, stretched on the turf, all played out.
Donegal broke upfield, Christy Toye sprayed the ball wide left into space, hoping that Michael Murphy would win the race. It was asking a lot. Had it been the first half, Morgan O'Flaherty would surely have got there first. But the zip was gone from his legs and Murphy got there just in front.
And in a moment of pure intuition, Murphy chipped the ball up on the run. Had he played safe and bent down to pick it, he'd have been surrounded by two defenders, hard by the sideline with nowhere to go.
The chip bought him a fraction of time and a metre of space. It kept the move alive. Cassidy arrived at the end of it and unleashed the long-distance shot that travelled all the way into Donegal folklore.
Two teams that could not be separated after 100 minutes were maybe finally separated by nothing more than the deft chip that bought the two most precious commodities on the night: a second of time and a pocket of space.
Sunday Indo Sport