Sunday 25 February 2018

Fierce rivals too close for comfort

Successes of the past decade have added an extra dash of spice to Donegal - Mayo clashes

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea tussles for possession with Donegal defender Neil McGee Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea tussles for possession with Donegal defender Neil McGee Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Nothing from Donegal and Mayo's tradition can be held accountable for the creeping antagonism of their matches in recent years. For generations they lived in peace and harmony. They share a west of Ireland peripherality and a familiarity with hunger and not being the envy of others. As to the beginning to the spikier rivalry that now exists, the obvious reference point is the 2012 All-Ireland final.

It wasn't a poisonous match but it conferred a gilded status on Donegal and changed the dynamic of the relationship. Mayo's despair at losing another All-Ireland was not assuaged by the beneficiaries being Donegal rather than one of the bigger hitters. In fact, it probably made it worse. The poor start which handed Donegal an unyielding initiative is not the kind to be easily scratched from the memory.

"People are still mentioning it as the one that got away," says John Casey, the former Mayo forward and a regular match analyst on Midwest Radio. "How many got away down the years? They are still talking about the Meath defeat here from 1996. But they would certainly mention the 2012 final and it was a game that was there for the taking."

This afternoon the counties again get too close for comfort at Ballybofey, with Donegal having made a flying start to the National League and Mayo still waiting for their first point. The visitors have had three more weeks to prepare after restarting late and they'll gain some confidence from the spirited showing against Dublin, but Donegal have destroyed both Down and Cork and look revitalised.

Has that scorching start been misleading? They will find out today with the renewal of a rivalry which Casey feels is not bettered by any other at the moment in Gaelic football. Mayo have never won a league match, incredibly, in Donegal but their last two meetings in the championship resulted in emphatic wins. The proximity of the counties and lack of a really viable rival in Connacht for Mayo at present has embellished the fixture's status.

Those recent Mayo championship wins would be happily swapped for a different result in 2012 by those loyal to the green and red but they still left wounds in Donegal's psyche. The 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat is pardoned to some extent by Donegal's obvious fatigue and injuries, coming two weeks after losing their Ulster title to Monaghan, but the size of the beating, 16 points, rankles. It was the current manager Rory Gallagher's last association with the Jim McGuinness regime.

Last August, Gallagher, having replaced McGuinness, had Mayo in his crosshairs after coming through a much tougher Ulster campaign, but Mayo unravelled them, inspired by Aidan O'Shea's goal before half-time, and won by eight. That was, in some ways, more of a setback to Donegal than 2013 and leaves today's game carrying added significance in defining the state of the parties.

"It should have been a tight game," says Brendan Devenney, the former Donegal player, of last year's quarter-final meeting. "So it is very hard to figure out. Were they tired? Had the tough four years of McGuinness and the year with Rory caught up with their legs? If you saw Tyrone's performance against Kerry it was full of energy, they had a lot of young players. In my mind I thought, 'Jesus, Tyrone are going to take over again and we are on the way down'. But there is just something about Donegal this year, there is a real contentment in their play. There's a new energy."

In the more distant past the only game of significance in the history of these counties was one of the worst ever visited on the watching public: the 1992 All-Ireland semi-final which Donegal won ahead of their first All-Ireland triumph the following month.

Recent league games have been tetchy affairs and a challenge match in Swinford in May 2012 is also raised, with Donegal accused of going all heavy and mean on an experimental Mayo side in the second half. They met in that year's National League in March at Ballyshannon, Donegal having been promoted the previous season, and the hosts won 0-17 to 1-7 in spite of losing Rory Kavanagh to a red card before half-time.

Donegal were coming off three defeats in four league games, most recently a drubbing from Kerry, when they hit their best spring form against Mayo. Already the matches were pitting the wits of McGuinness against James Horan, with Mayo suspicious about Donegal's motives in moving the game away from Ballybofey to the tighter ground in Ballyshannon further north. Mayo took a lot of flak for the defeat, even though they later made the semi-finals, which Donegal failed to do. Horan would come to refer to this match as indicative of supporters' tendency to over-react to results, good or bad.

"The Michael Murphy show," recalls Casey of the league clash in 2012, "we were dreadful the same day. We would probably have left that game as Mayo people quite worried for our own chances. Little did we think we would be meeting them in an All-Ireland final six months later."

After the All-Ireland final in September the counties met in the following year's league in Castlebar where Mayo won 1-10 to 0-9, and Donegal were later relegated. Some of the tension saw Paul Durcan, the Donegal goalkeeper, caught up in a shouting match with Mayo fans. The win was Mayo's first against Donegal in seven attempts over the previous eight years and also ended Mayo's worst league run since 1994. Donegal's hopes dipped when Anthony Thompson was sent off on a second yellow card with 20 minutes left. By the time Mayo had Donegal in their sights in the All-Ireland quarter-final that August they felt destined to win. The match was prefaced by a remarkable accusation by Rory Gallagher. He claimed that Mayo had given Monaghan tips on how to beat Donegal when they met in a challenge match before the Ulster final. He also made reference to a tackle by Lee Keegan on Mark McHugh at the start of the 2012 All-Ireland final, Gallagher's inference being that it was deliberate and pre-meditated. Mayo regarded the comments as cynical mind-play designed to get under their skin.

There was some easing of emotions with the counties not meeting in league or championship in 2014. Last year they resumed their rivalry in the league in Castlebar where a draw, courtesy of a Donegal point in injury-time, meant Donegal pipped Mayo for a place in the semi-finals. Eleven cards were doled out, seven yellow, three black, and one red, for Donal Vaughan late in the game. By now both McGuinness and Horan had departed the scene but the legacy of their rivalry continued to influence the mood of games.

"They have become fiercest of rivals really," states Casey. "Mayo have given Donegal two drubbings in championship football but ultimately Donegal won the big prize in 2012 and will always have the Indian sign over Mayo because of that. The last two championship games were two big hidings but at the end of the day the Donegal players are the ones with the Celtic Crosses in their arse pockets."

Other elements feed into the rivalry, with parents of Donegal players, including Michael Murphy, of Mayo origin, and several players from both sides having mixed at university in Sligo. "Both counties are up there with Dublin and Kerry with very recognisable players, piles of All-Stars; they would know each other black and blue at this stage," adds Casey. "I mean both teams are ultra-competitive at the highest level."

The tactical reputation of McGuinness also set a challenge for Mayo under Horan to match. "Donegal might have tried to impose their tactics on them," says Devenney.

"I think Mayo, when they played Donegal, very much tried to boss the game. They have a bit more physical power than them too. Tactically, it will be very intriguing to see how (Stephen) Rochford plays it; I think he will go for more of what you might call Ulster (defensive-style) football."

Mayo are missing Cillian O'Connor's free-taking badly, and need to find the right balance between the defensive play in evidence against Dublin and the necessary ambition to venture for scores. The past week has seen their players go to ground, avoiding all media, as they set their sights on nailing their first points of the spring. A first win in Donegal, in the current climate of rivalry, would be a major additional feather in the cap of the new management team. It is not a record Donegal will concede easily.

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