Eugene McGee: Horan's risk-takers earn reward for giving it a lash
The shock victory of Mayo was well deserved, as they took the game by the scruff of the neck after a nervous opening quarter and then proceeded to play as we have not seen Mayo play since they beat Dublin in a dramatic semi-final some years ago.
This was not your typical Mayo team of the recent past. There were no 'shapers' on board this time, no flash Harrys, but rather dogged, determined and, above all, fearless players as epitomised by centre half-back Donal Vaughan from Ballinrobe.
Mayo played with utter abandon, no fancy tactics, no packed defences, just hell-for-leather enthusiasm and plenty of risk-taking, which is what you have to do if you want to dethrone champions. The biggest shock was the domination of the O'Shea brothers at midfield against the previously awesome Cork pairing of Alan O'Connor and Aidan Walsh.
Then in the second half, as Mayo confidence grew, their backs really had the Cork forwards in their pockets and almost kept them scoreless. But, more importantly, the Mayo forwards were able to take points on the run against a desperate Cork backline and their victory was a really impressive one.
Mayo often do well in quarter-finals or semi-finals. They beat Tyrone as champions in a quarter-final in a few years ago too. This team has come a long way since they were lucky to beat London a couple of months ago but, of course, they must now face Kerry and it is crucial that they do well in that game and not be a one-day wonder.
But for now this is a great result for a county that has gone through a few terrible years. And, with an unspectacular band of players and no prima donnas, plus several veteran subs ready to play vital roles as happened yesterday, Mayo have much to look forward to under manager James Horan.
It is a sad departure for Cork, but there is only so much any team can take when top forwards keep dropping out. The injury to Daniel Goulding was the final straw as was reflected in the pathetic scoreline yesterday.
Yesterday's excitement was a fitting finale to what is becoming one of the best annual weekends in the GAA calendar.
Tribute and sincere thanks are due to the footballers of Donegal and Kildare for the heroics they performed at Croke Park on Saturday night. And while we certainly must separate excitement from quality in this game, the drama far outweighed the dross we saw masquerading as top-class football for a large part of the game.
Heroism in sport does not always depend on high levels of skill -- this match was proof of that -- and the tension in extra-time was fantastic for the spectators.
Of course a draw would have been a fairer result but sport, like life, is rarely kind and yet again it was Kildare who were the victims of the so-called bad luck that ensued.
Their fans will argue, with some legitimacy, that Kieran McGeeney's four-year reign has not proven to be in any way lucky, with a series of controversial decisions going against them.
From the very start, I got the impression that Kildare may have concentrated too much on counteracting the Donegal's defensive play and in the process it caused them to sidetrack their own style that worked so well over this summer.
The players were cagey instead of being flamboyant and seemed terrified of getting caught in the spider's web that Donegal threw around the Kildare forward line. The only answer to this negative defending, which is so annoying to so many GAA people, is clever use of long deliveries at speed from the middle third of the field BEFORE the Donegal team retreats to numbers of 12 or 13 in their backline.
Kildare did not do that and, therefore, it was no surprise that they only managed five first-half points after having the majority of the play.
But it would be a mistake to blame Donegal's defensive tactics for Kildare's defeat because in the second half the play had opened up and the Donegal defence was often exposed.
Also, Johnny Doyle missed two easy frees at the start of the game and Eoghan O'Flaherty missed a crucial close-in free, and there was some woeful wild shooting from ridiculous positions.
These were self-inflicted wounds as was the total failure of the Kildare players to cop on to the arrival of Christy Toye as a sub in the 58th minute, and instantly he was allowed to waltz unmarked through the Kildare backline to score the crucial goal in this match -- and how vital that was because Donegal failed to get any further score in the remaining 15 minutes of normal time but still hung on for a draw.
The overriding aspect of this Donegal performance was their raw courage in the face of adversity as several times it looked as if they were going to be swamped.
For instance, Donegal had only scored two points in the opening 37 minutes of the game and still managed to win. Amazing! It was sheer guts and judicious use of subs that prevented Kildare from disappearing out of sight and it is a long time since I watched a Donegal team that had no messers in their team but where every man gave absolutely everything for the county cause. For that alone they deserved to win this pulsating game and their manager Jim McGuinness must take enormous credit for the way he manipulated his team to victory from the jaws of defeat several times in this game.
As usual nowadays, we had an umpire/referee c**k-up and the Tomas O'Connor goal should have been allowed, but referee David Coldrick disallowed it and overruled the umpire who had raised the green flag.
How long more will officials be allowed to carry on like this? And forget about expensive Hawk-Eye -- all that is needed is common sense to prevent this error-ridden madness.
It will be interesting to see where Kildare go from here after four years of highly intensive training, coaching and physical development which in terms of time and effort has exceeded anything carried out by any team in the history of the game.
Nothing of substance has been achieved in terms of trophies won in that time and unless several new players, particularly cutting-edge forwards, can be found quickly, then these dedicated players and even more dedicated manager Kieran McGeeney may have nothing to show for all of their hard effort, and sacrifice.
By contrast, Donegal have had a Lazarus-like transformation this season and may well reach the All-Ireland final in McGuinness' first season. Such are the vagaries of sport!
Other games at the weekend confirmed what we already knew: that Kerry and Tyrone would be involved in the closing stages of the All-Ireland, but with question marks hanging over them to different extents.
Kerry's outing was largely a waste of time and will probably be regarded as no more than an interruption to their own training regime in the weeks ahead, but any serious injury to Darran O'Sullivan would certainly be a big setback.
Tyrone eventually steamrolled an immature Roscommon team into submission in the final 15 minutes when they scored 2-4, but there are still some very exposed players in their line-up just now. But they are improving gradually with each game and a near full house in Croke Park on Saturday night will provide a great spectacle.
Looking at the paltry attendance yesterday, one wonders why those two games were not played in Limerick where Cork and Kerry followers would have been far more likely to travel than to Croke Park.
Pleasing the corporate box holders may be important for the GAA's finances but the welfare of ordinary patrons is far more important and it is amazing how slow GAA bosses at all levels are to learn that lesson.
For the Mayo supporters who, to their credit, travelled in large numbers yesterday, they probably floated home.