Mayo strike right balance as Donegal run out of road
All-Ireland SF Quarter-final: Mayo 2-13 Donegal 0-11
Aidan O’Shea leaped high and punched the air in exultation. The last All-Ireland quarter-final had its snapshot moment, he had made his biggest statement.
Scoring a hat-trick of goals against Sligo or taking down a vulnerable Galway full-back line is one thing. But prising open the meanest defensive cover in the business offered confirmation that the success of his switch to a more permanent role at full-forward has not been based on easy pickings in the west.
Until just after 6.30pm on Saturday evening that perception might still have existed.
But his catch, turn and devastating finish beneath Paul Durcan, that left Neil McGee trailing in his wake and Mark McHugh brushed aside with the sheer force of his movement has to be one of the most significant moments of this Championship.
If Donegal can’t defend a situation like this against such fusion of strength and skill is it reasonable to suggest that with the right ball O’Shea is becoming close to unmarkable?
The battle between O’Shea and McGee always had a compelling feel to it. And early on McGee had a few successes, winning four of the seven direct contests between them though two of those successes were coughed up for Mayo sidelines.
But it was the quality of the service that always threatened to tilt this duel in O’Shea’s favour and, in that respect, Seamus O’Shea’s contribution to Donegal’s demise can’t be underestimated.
Throughout that first half he had been letting in so much inviting ball for his brother to attack but the delivery for the goal was close to perfection.
A step back, a glance and a flight path launched from the outside of the right boot that hung for sufficient time for the recipient to plant his feet in the ground. The unmovable object was in position.
It was the game-breaker. Referee David Gough instantly blew the whistle for half-time and, from a position where Donegal had clawed their way back from a three-point deficit to trail by just one, they were now 1-7 to 0-6 in arrears. The platform had been established.
Afterwards O’Shea couldn’t deny the satisfaction he felt in that moment. “There has been a bit of talk that I have been doing it against lesser opposition,” he reflected.
“Other players around the place are doing it against better opposition. I can do it any day. It doesn’t matter who it is. I got a great ball in from Seamie and a few other good balls in during the game. But it was very satisfying. You have to be patient at times. Early on they were keeping it tight. But as the game went on you could see serious opportunities opening up for me.”
Significantly, once Mayo’s second goal went in just after half-time – Lee Keegan’s dipping half-hit point attempt, after Seamus O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor’s snappy approach work, sailing over Durcan’s head, O’Shea took up a deeper role as Mayo sought to hold what they had.
That second goal had sealed it, giving Mayo a seven-point lead that rose to nine by the 46th minute.
If the telepathy between the O’Sheas was a highlight, Lee Keegan’s performance even eclipsed that.
The intent of the goal is open to question but he scored the opening two points off either foot and assisted in three other scores. By the end he had ball in hand (30 times) more than any other player to deliver a performance that has been missing since last year’s Connacht final.
The Mayo management deserve credit too for the way they protected their own full-back line. The words Barry Moran and sweeper may not seem harmonious but by regularly planting the midfielder in front of Michael Murphy at full-forward they were forcing Donegal to find their captain in the corners.
Murphy was still by far their most effective player, scoring three points from play from a total of eight, but Moran’s positioning took away much of the aerial, and subsequently goal, threat.
The switching of Moran and Colm Boyle, allowing the big man to contest kick-outs, was another clever feature.
It was a composed, controlled performance as a fifth consecutive All-Ireland semi-final was reached.
Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons dominated the middle third, O’Shea’s ferocious work rate never more evident than when he stripped Frank McGlynn of possession in the 26th minute.
Inevitably, the only question that applies to Mayo now is whether they can see it out. O’Shea says they accept those terms.
“I’ve always said there is no problem with hunger. We’ll always keep coming back. The reality is we’re always going to be judged on whether we got over the line.”
For Donegal, there is the sense now that an era may be coming to an end. This is not a young team and it is not a squad with depth of quality as Rory Gallagher’s call for just three substitutes might suggest.
Ultimately, the challenge of their four-match provincial campaign and then a further qualifier against Galway had to have caught up with them.
“We are a very experienced team and it would be ideal to have less games. There’s no doubt we were managing game to game with some of them.
Whether players like Christy Toye, Colm McFadden and even Neil Gallagher will come back now remains to be seen. Doubts persist too over the availability of Durcan and Anthony Thompson. Rory Gallagher is facing a much different challenge in 2016 than he did this year.
They never sparked, they never got enough runners in the right attacking positions as Mayo kept bodies back, even conceding kick-outs which, as Gallagher observed, they don’t normally do.
Donegal made uncharacteristic errors too, Karl Lacey’s pass across his own goalmouth for Kevin McLoughlin to seize upon for a point standing out.
The manner of Mayo’s second-half lock-down will please them, especially after conceding two goals in their games against Galway and Sligo.
The ever-assured Keith Higgins thrived as the game went on, while McLoughlin and Jason Doherty contributed to the defensive effort.
If there was a concern it was how they didn’t exploit the gaps left by Donegal’s need to chase the game. Six shots dropped short in the second half to add to three before the break reflected a lack of conviction.
But for now they are right where they want to be, a team that may be finding the right balance between the attacking instinct they thrive on and the defensive stability they need.
Scorers – Mayo: L Keegan 1-2, C O’Connor (3fs), J Doherty 0-3 each, A O’Shea 1-0, K McLoughlin 0-2, A Freeman, A Moran, K Higgins 0-1 each. Donegal: M Murphy 0-8 (4fs, 1 45), A Thompson, L McLoone, C Toye all 0-1 each.
Mayo – D Clarke 7; G Cafferkey 7, T Cunniffe 6, K Higgins 8; L Keegan 9, D Vaughan 7, C Boyle 7; S O’Shea 9, B Moran 7; D O’Connor 6, T Parsons 8, J Doherty 8; K McLoughlin 7, A O’Shea 8, C O’Connor 6. Subs: C Barrett 7 for Cunniffe (33), R Hennelly 7 for Clarke (h-t), P Durcan 6 for Vaughan (BC, 54), A Moran 7 for Moran (temp 60), A Freeman for S O’Shea (65), K Keane for Cafferkey (70).
Donegal – P Durcan 7; E McGee 7, N McGee 6, P McGrath 7; M McHugh 6, K Lacey 6, F McGlynn 7; N Gallagher 6, H McFadden 7; C Toye 6, O MacNiallias 5, R McHugh 7; C McFadden 6, M Murphy 8, P McBrearty 5. Subs: M McElhinney 7 for Toye (h-t) A Thompson 7 for N McGee (38), L McLoone 6 for MacNiallais (39).
Ref – D Gough (Meath)