Murphy rocket sees Donegal strike gold
THE Donegal project has been completed -- for the present at least.
Jim McGuinness will no doubt launch a new one over the next few months but for now the manager, his squad and the whole of Donegal can bask in the warm glow generated by an All-Ireland triumph that was constructed so painstakingly over the past two years.
The climb started from a very low base after Donegal exited the 2010 championship with barely a whimper of defiance against Armagh in an All-Ireland qualifier.
McGuinness' appointment as manager some weeks later raised hopes of an upward graph, but nobody could have foreseen that by September 2012, Donegal would be double Ulster champions and, even more importantly, that Sam Maguire would be on his way to the north-west for only the second time in championship history.
The famous trophy will undertake that journey today after Donegal locked Mayo back into the house of pain in an All-Ireland final where the agenda was set early on. Fortunately for Donegal, they were the trend-setters, hitting Mayo for 2-1 in the first 11 minutes.
Seven-point leads are rarely wiped out in All-Ireland football finals and while Mayo did their best to make amends for the early defensive frailties, the workload proved too much.
They had deducted four points from the deficit by half-time to trail by three (2-4 to 0-7) but that was as good as it got for the Connacht champions, who lost the second half by 0-7 to 0-6.
Two phases will come under close scrutiny when Mayo begin yet another painful post All-Ireland debrief. The opening 15 minutes of the first half was a total mess for Mayo whose attempt to end the 61-year wait for a fourth All-Ireland title was all but wrecked by sloppy defending.
The first 10 minutes of the second half was also hugely influential as Mayo kicked three wides from good chances at a time when they trailed by four points. Those two periods won't make for pretty viewing when James Horan revisits a DVD that's certain to warm many a cold night in Donegal this winter.
Michael Murphy's thundering goal in the third minute, scored after he collected an accurate delivery from marauding centre-back Karl Lacey was a hugely stabilising agent for Donegal and there was more to come eight minutes later when Colm McFadden hit their second goal.
He had pointed a free in between but it was his goal which really electrified Donegal's effort. It was an opportunist finish after a shot by Patrick McBrearty had hit the post and the ball had squirted away from Mayo defender Kevin Keane.
It was a cruel break for Mayo who had justifiable grounds for feeling hard done by just before Donegal broke upfield and scored that precious goal. Cillian O'Connor appeared to have been fouled as he bore down on the Donegal goal, but referee Maurice Deegan saw it differently, much to Mayo's disappointment.
Donegal would have had a third goal in the 13th minute but for a brilliant save by David Clarke from a McFadden shot. At that stage it really did look as if Mayo were headed for a defeat of 2006 proportions (they lost heavily to Kerry) but, to their credit, they arrested the slide and settled into a rhythm which asked real questions of Donegal.
Aidan O'Shea and Barry Moran improved their take around midfield, Kevin McLoughlin began making progress down the right and with Donegal's error count rising, Mayo gradually worked their way back into contention. They out-scored Donegal by 0-5 to 0-1 over the final 15 minutes of the first half in a haul that included two inspiring points from Michael Conroy and Enda Varley.
Kicked under enormous pressure, they were the type of scores which would have left Mayo quite confident of completing the recovery in the second half.
However, it was vital for them to start the second half in the same positive vein they closed out the opening period, but it was Donegal who made the early breaks with points from McFadden (free) and Frank McGlynn, separated by one from an O'Connor free.
McGlynn's point summed up the maturity that Donegal bring to their game nowadays.
The attack-minded corner-back had a chance to shoot from a reasonably good position but thought better of it, opting instead to continue the move with another pass which enabled Donegal to work -- closer to the Mayo goal.
McGlynn was still in the vicinity when the next shooting opportunity arose and he fired over the bar to take his championship return this season to 1-4, quite a contribution from a No 4.
Trailing by four points after 40 minutes, Mayo were about to enter a phase which cost them dearly. Three times in five minutes they had scoreable shots at goal but Barry Moran, Varley (free) and Conroy shot wide.
It meant that Donegal emerged from one of their shakiest periods with a four-point lead which they extended to five when Michael Murphy, who played a captain's part in the success, pointed a free in the 47th minute.
The sides exchanged two points each, over the next 10 minutes taking them into the final 10 minutes with Donegal leading by 2-9 to 0-10. By then, Mayo had replaced three of their starting forwards and despatched Aidan O'Shea to full-forward in an effort to prise a goal opening.
However, with the Donegal defence at its vigilant best, Mayo found it very difficult to open the approach routes to Paul Durcan's goal. They had one late chance but sub Seamus O'Shea had his effort blocked.
It was to be Mayo's final flourish and Donegal protected their four-point lead to the end to ensure a thoroughly deserved victory.
It was their 12th win in 13 championship games since May 2011, a period in which their development as a team has been quite remarkable. For all that, they would have surprised at how easy they found it to unlock the Mayo defence early on.
It was generally expected that the opening 15 minutes would be a low-scoring, tentative period during which both sides majored in defence.
Instead, Mayo were uncharacteristically loose, allowing Donegal to unload accurate passes and also getting caught in too many one-on-one situations when extra cover was an essential.
Still, credit to Murphy for the manner in which he finished that early goal. He might have taken the safer option of a point, but instead he opted to trust himself and was richly rewarded as his rocket flew past Clarke.
It set the tone for a golden Donegal period that ultimately won the game. For while Mayo battled back bravely, they were always playing a chasing game.
And, as so many other opponents have discovered, reining in Donegal once they open a lead is a very difficult task, one which proved beyond Mayo's reach on a day when, once again, their application to rejoin the All-Ireland club was rejected.
The game at a glance
MAN OF THE MATCH
Michael Murphy (Donegal)
His early goal was finished with real conviction and sent out a clear signal to his team-mates that their captain was in the mood for a big performance. And so it proved as he stood tall and strong right through the game, taking his total to 1-4 -- of which 1-1 came from open play.
Despite falling seven points behind after 11 minutes, Mayo were right back in the game early in the second half but kicked three wides between the 41st and 44th minutes, leaving them four points behind when the deficit could have been down to one.
What is it with Mayo and the early stages of All-Ireland finals? Once again, they left themselves with a huge workload when they trailed by 2-1 to 0-0 after 11 minutes. They took up the challenge but the burden was too much to carry against such an efficient unit as Donegal.
Murphy hoisting the Sam Maguire as Croke Park turned into a golden centre of triumph in recognition of Donegal's remarkable second All-Ireland success. Who would have predicted such a turnaround two years ago when Donegal lost to Armagh by nine points in a qualifier?
Mayo could justifiably complain that Cillian O'Connor should have been awarded a close-in free just before Donegal broke upfield and scored their second goal. It was a crucial call by Maurice Deegan which probably had a major bearing on the game.
WHAT THEY SAID
Jim McGuinness (Donegal manager): "I think the hype got to us a wee bit. We had a very good start, we played some good football but I think we forced our own natural game a wee bit. We forced balls inside. I know we got joy off a ball like that early in the game, but we forced ball inside as well."
James Horan (Mayo manager): "If you give a team like Donegal a seven-point start it's going to be very difficult to come back. The two goals should have been defended better -- they were just from basic mistakes we made higher up the pitch."
Donegal 21 (10)
Mayo 27 (16)
Donegal 1 (E McGee 13)
Mayo 5 (J Doherty 5, L Keegan 6, C O'Connor 13, D Vaughan 35, A O'Shea 72)
Scorers -- Donegal: M Murphy (0-3f), C McFadden (0-3f) 1-4 each, R Bradley F McGlynn, N Gallagher 0-1 each. Mayo: C O'Connor 0-5 (5f), K McLoughlin, E Varley (1f) 0-2 each, M Conroy, R Feeney, L Keegan, J Gibbons 0-1 each.
Donegal -- P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, F McGlynn; E McGee, K Lacey, A Thompson; N Gallagher, R Kavanagh; M McHugh, L McLoone, R Bradley; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden. Subs: D Walsh for Bradley (41), M McElhinney for McBrearty (48), C Toye for McLoone (57), D Molloy for McElhinney (72).
Mayo -- D Clarke; K Keane, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle; B Moran, A O'Shea; K McLoughlin, J Doherty, A Dillon; E Varley, C O'Connor, M Conroy. Subs: A Freeman for Doherty (50), J Gibbons or Conroy (59), R Feeney for Varley (61), S O'Shea for Moran (70).
REF -- M Deegan (Laois).