Tuesday 20 August 2019

Horan in awe of 'inspiring' Mayo troops after sealing semi-final with Dubs

Mayo 1-14  Donegal 1-10

Donegal’s Michael Murphy is held by Chris Barrett (left) and Eoin O’Donoghue of Mayo as Aidan O’Shea lies injured holding his face. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Donegal’s Michael Murphy is held by Chris Barrett (left) and Eoin O’Donoghue of Mayo as Aidan O’Shea lies injured holding his face. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Conor McKeon

Sooner or later we're going to have to stop being surprised. Mayo? In an All-Ireland semi-final? After much strife and drama!

Not since night began following day has a succession seemed so inevitable now.

Mayo manager James Horan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mayo manager James Horan. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

On a dense, soupy night in Castlebar, James Horan stood with his back to the wall in the tunnel under the main stand and rattled off his team's attributes as though he never doubted their ability to conjure them at such a crucial moment.

Most of everyone else had.

"They mental strength they showed," he said, shaking his head in admiration. "Some of the tackling and the effort was inspiring, to be honest. They were superb."

They were.

Daire Ó Baoill of Donegal is tackled by Fionn McDonagh of Mayo. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Daire Ó Baoill of Donegal is tackled by Fionn McDonagh of Mayo. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

And thus, Mayo are back in an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, their eighth in nine years.

By the end, wise old heads Andy Moran and Kevin McLoughlin had been deployed to guide them safely home.

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Matthew Ruane, their find of the League, had returned from injury and galloped around MacHale Park like a colt released into the wild, providing just the required wattage of energy at that stage.

Having endured the hardship of Keith Higgins's early black card, Jason Doherty's serious knee injury and a disputed penalty, Mayo were more alive at that moment than at any other in yet another crazy summer.

Daire Ó Baoill of Donegal is dispossessed by Chris Barrett of Mayo. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Daire Ó Baoill of Donegal is dispossessed by Chris Barrett of Mayo. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Donegal, meanwhile, had been reduced to a frazzled mess.

"I thought the application and work-rate were superb right through," Horan noted. "The turnovers we won in the first half and the tackles that guys put in..."

Somehow, Mayo's strange habit for playing at, but rarely very much more than, the level of their opponents never afflicted them here.

The truth of it was that they out-thought Donegal. They didn't so much bully the Ulster champions as hussle them.

Aidan O’Shea of Mayo in action against Niall O'Donnell of Donegal. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea of Mayo in action against Niall O'Donnell of Donegal. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In the 29th minute, Cillian O'Connor pre-empted a short-dropping point attempt from Doherty and stole in to palm Mayo's goal and put them 1-6 to 0-3 up.

Seconds later, Colm Boyle dispossessed Jamie Brennan 12 metres out as he criss-crossed his way to Mayo's goal. It was a minute of huge consequence that exemplified the evening.

But for Michael Murphy's second-half penalty, forcefully objected to by Horan, Donegal would have had no cause to fight for towards the end of the game.

"I looked at it and it looked like there was two of them pulling," Horan argued. "It's one I thought David Gough got wrong. I really do. It brought them into the game.

"But I thought we responded well to it. We got there in the end but I thought it was incredibly harsh."

Beforehand, it had almost seemed obscene that Donegal and Mayo had arrived in Castlebar on such parity.

Declan Bonner's men were convincing Division 2 winners and comprehensive Ulster champions.

Somewhere along the way, they had attained the unofficial mantle of the team most likely to beat Dublin in this year's Championship.

Their only crime this summer was failing to put Kerry away in Croke Park.

Yet they came to Castlebar at eye-level with Mayo, whose 'carry on qualifying' routine these past four years has come to define them almost as much as their extraordinary capacity to discard previous form and win the matches that matter.

All summer, Donegal have been powered by their key men but Saturday night didn't reflect their best work.

Ryan McHugh never took flight.

Every time he hit the runway, at least one Mayo player was there to obstruct and force McHugh to either halt or at least change direction.

Paddy Durcan, who effectively marked McHugh, scored 0-3 in what was the most productive individual performance of the night.

Paddy McBrearty, meanwhile, pinched the first point of the match but the hamstring problem that jeopardised his involvement became more prominent as the game wore on.

As predicted, Murphy had Lee Keegan for intimate company but against a furious wall of Mayo defence across the halfway line - led by a powerful performance from Aidan O'Shea - the Donegal talisman had to drop so deep to get involved in the first half that his influence was negligible.

In the second, he and Daire Ó Baoill were Donegal's only hope, particularly after the penalty Murphy won and scored but unusually, he was culpable for three of Donegal's ten second-half wides and had another scoreable free drop short.

"You can't afford to kick the wides we kicked in the second half and get a result at this level and that's disappointing," Declan Bonner admitted.

"It is fairly raw at the minute and will be raw for a good number of weeks. But we will get a chance to sit down and look back at it. The lads will be bitterly disappointed because we just didn't perform."

For the second year running, Donegal had badly underperformed on the last day of the Super 8s with an All-Ireland semi-final looming.

And when Gough blew the final whistle, Mayo immediately shed the disappointment of their Connacht defeat to Roscommon and their anaemic effort in Killarney and resuscitated their summer.

From that moment, they had less than seven days to recover, repair and prepare for an All-Ireland semi-final against an opponent that remained a mystery to them until yesterday evening.

"We don't worry about that stuff," said Horan of the sharp turnaround.

"There's no point. We'll train probably once this week and we'll head to Dublin next Friday and look forward to the game."

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