Donegal aim key weapon at Mayo's Achilles heel
In June, former Mayo manager James Horan described Donegal as "the most dangerous animal out there".
Armagh had just been pulverised at their own Athletic Grounds by a team moving through the gears with ominous coherence and intensity. It was a performance franked by absolute ruthlessness, Donegal leading by ten points at the interval through football that was slave neither to structure nor rigid defensive system.
As statements go, it seemed tumultuous. A virtual declaration that Rory Gallagher was re-inventing Donegal, declaring the old Jim McGuinness blueprint too restricting for the journey they now planned.
"I think that Donegal are better than they were," said Horan. "I think that their attacking sense now and their precision and skill execution is just phenomenal. I'm a big fan of them, I have to admit. They've never got the credit that they deserve from a skill point of view.
"When they attack, they attack at such pace. But their hand-passing and foot-passing is, for me, possibly the best in the country."
Less than two months on, Donegal have another three Championship games in the tank, none of them illuminated by quite the same sense of barrelling self-confidence. They beat Derry by two points, lost to Monaghan by one and finished strong last weekend to put 10 between themselves and a fading Galway.
Afterwards, Gallagher alluded to the sense of tactical freedom encountered when playing outside the claustrophobic squeeze of an Ulster Championship.
Compare Donegal's path to tonight's quarter-final (Tyrone, Armagh, Derry, Monaghan and Galway) to that of their first-round Ulster victims, Tyrone (Donegal, Limerick, Meath, Tipperary and Sligo).
Better still, compare it to Mayo's (Galway and Sligo). Donegal have been on a heavily-mined path from the very outset, triggering concerns that fatigue might get them now against opponents so lightly raced in Connacht.
Yet some of the football summoned last Saturday, particularly in the closing 20 minutes, spoke of a team moving towards new levels of self-expression.
"You get us a move out of Ulster and you might see it a bit more" reflected Gallagher afterwards.
He was responding specifically to the siting of Michael Murphy on the edge of the Galway square as distinct from using him as some kind of human snow plough in the middle third.
Murphy is widely considered one of the great forwards of the modern game, yet his role with the county team has, increasingly, been spread across a multitude of lines.
Last Saturday, his re-acquaintance with an orthodox full-forward role was, essentially, the winning of the game. The knock-down for Ryan McHugh's game-breaking goal was sublime and that soaring 47th-minute fetch for the evening's most spectacular point drew audible gasps from the stands.
Donegal minor manager Declan Bonner believes that Murphy will again be sited primarily on the edge of the square tonight as Gallagher seeks to expose what is broadly considered Mayo's one clear fault-line.
The five-in-a-row Connacht champions have leaked four goals in their two outings thus far, a statistic that looks like a red light flashing now.
"Mayo's Achilles heel is still the full-back line, there's no doubt about that," says Bonner. "And if you play Murphy inside, he's going to tie up two players, if not three, in that area. He just caused consternation when he went in there against Galway. They didn't seem to know how to cope with him.
"So it's going to be a very interesting tactical battle. The key player in my opinion is Colm McFadden. He's the one who can see things happening, the guy who can dink that 50- or 60-yard pass inside to Murphy.
"He's got a new lease of life out the field, getting on a lot of ball and playing the role that he has done for his club over the last ten years around that middle third.
"If he performs well, I'd be expecting Donegal to win this game."
Trouble is, they have no true way of knowing quite what to expect from Mayo. How could they, given the Connacht champions have been asked to play no more than 35 minutes of authentic Championship action so far?
There is, though, a common theme running through both camps now with the siting of arguably their best players at 14.
Aidan O'Shea torpedoed Sligo for 3-4 from play in the Connacht final and, given Noel Connelly's call this week for "protection" for the big Breaffy man, it seems safe to assume they plan on keeping him close to Paul Durcan's goal.
But the big difference between him and Murphy playing 14? For the Donegal man, it's a natural position.
Former Mayo manager John Maughan believes Mayo simply have to keep O'Shea inside now, yet expresses concern for the conditions he might encounter.
"After Aidan's performances, albeit against Connacht opposition, he has to play at 14," says Maughan. "If he wasn't picked there and Mayo lose, the management would be slaughtered.
"But I just think that by the time the McGees are finished with him, clattering, smashing and banging him, frittering him and getting bodies back on him, he certainly won't have the same effect as he's had in the Connacht Championship. I can guarantee you that."
That must be a concern for Mayo's management team, the possibility of O'Shea becoming hopelessly marginalised on the edge of the 'square' against, arguably, the most suffocating defence in football.
The player himself admitted after their Connacht final cakewalk that that contest had borne a faintly artificial quality.
He was, he agreed, surprised to have been left one-on-one for so long against the opposition full-back, something Donegal's management team would simply never countenance.
O'Shea has been operating at full-forward since the League game against Monaghan, yet understands that only now is he about to experience life in the Championship firing line.
"The last two days out, we had the luxury of having an awful lot of space for all our inside boys" he reflected last month on Newstalk.
"We're aware that that's not going to be the way it is going forward. But look, we've played against blanket teams over the last couple of years.
"You can't be as gung-ho I suppose and just launch the ball in there because you know if you have two or three sweepers on the ground in there, they're just going to sweep the ball up and. . . gone. You just need to be a bit cute about it and use your possession a bit more wisely."
A potential negative for Donegal may be heavy mileage in the legs of a team facing into its sixth Championship game against one barely out of the starting stalls.
This could be exacerbated by the notorious one-week turnaround that has become a Championship bugbear for so many.
Bonner, however, believes that that tightness of schedule becomes an issue only for teams bouncing out of a defeat.
"I think if you're winning, the turnaround is no problem as long as you avoid injuries," reflected the '92 All-Ireland winner. "Players want to play, they don't like long periods of just training, training, training.
"I don't think the Galway game will have taken too much out of the Donegal players. It's probably left them in a better frame of mind.
"It's true, we've been through a hard route, a lot of tough matches. But I think that'll stand to Donegal this time. Mayo haven't been tested, but they're going to get a real, real test this time and it'll be interesting to see will they come up with any answers."