Old guard drives Donegal as time ticks on for Mayo
Donegal 1-14 Mayo 1-12
If there's any consolation in it for new Mayo manager Stephen Rochford, his Kerry counterpart Eamonn Fitzmaurice lost the first three games of his inter-county management career and subsequently thrived.
In fact, Fitzmaurice lost his first four in far more challenging circumstances than Mayo now find themselves in.
They came to Ballybofey on a sun-kissed day and, before what is considered a record 11,000 crowd for a fixture of this nature, played their part in a combative and compelling contest. But time is ticking and it's no longer enough to be talking in those terms.
"We have to move beyond good games and performances and look to get two points and that will be the stretch on us when we go to Clones (they play Monaghan next week)," reflected Rochford.
They came with very good intentions, started strong but eventually succumbed to a home side that keep pressing and probing without ever really hitting top gear.
It gives them three wins from three and almost guarantees that they will still be Division 1 team in 2017. In such a cut-throat environment, that's not a bad way to be at the end of February.
It was Donegal's first win over Mayo in their five league and championship meetings since the 2012 All-Ireland final and that would have been in the back of their minds throughout.
They've built up quite an enmity in that sequence of games and at times that was reflected in these exchanges that simmered but never sufficiently boiled over to take from the quality.
Still, it took over four minutes from the time Conor Loftus was taken down for a penalty to Diarmuid O'Connor's conversion on 45 minutes for a 1-9 to 0-10 lead because of various flashpoints that erupted and cards that had to be shown.
Referee Barry Cassidy dished out cards to eight Donegal players, yellow for Neil McGee, Hugh McFadden, Michael Murphy, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone and Anthony Thompson and black for Neil Gallagher just seconds after he had come off the bench in the 45th minute when he won a kick-out, lost it and reacted with a trip.
For their part, Mayo's Shane Nally, Conor O'Shea and Brendan Harrison were also yellow-carded.
Substitute McLoone got Donegal's key score, a trademark goal that saw him power through the middle on 57 minutes to take pass off Kavanagh and deftly beat Rob Hennelly. How often has he made those runs and scored those goals?
McLoone's intervention, which also involved another experienced substitute Toye in the build-up, restored a lead (1-11 to 1-10), they had fought hard to establish in the opening minutes of the second half when they went from 0-8 to 0-7 behind at the break to 0-10 to 0-9 in front before O'Connor's penalty.
"What pleased me most was that we were far from at our best. To be fair, I thought Mayo were the better team in the first half by a long shot but we dug in and we chipped over a few scores," reflected Donegal boss Rory Gallagher.
"I thought in the second half we turned the screw, even before the penalty we were the better team and showed good control. Maybe some of our top players were not playing as well as they have been but I thought they worked really hard."
He certainly couldn't have been referring to Ryan McHugh in that sentence, the flying wing-back re-affirming his status with Dublin's James McCarthy as, arguably, the form players of the season so far.
McHugh scored two points, had two more shots just off target and delivered one of the moments of the game in the opening half with a simple handpass to Martin McElhinney that split open the Mayo defence. McElhinney screwed his shot wide.
On the other wing his cousin Eoin continued his progression with his electrifying pace taking him beyond the Mayo cover at times, while Paddy McGrath was also a formidable presence throughout. Donegal struggled with Aidan O'Shea early on as he swung over a point off his less favoured right foot and won three frees for Evan Regan (two) and Hennelly to convert.
Both McGees took turns at policing him and they were never without an outrider after that point but the supply became far too fractured in the second half as Mayo legs seemed to tire.
They had a decisive edge around midfield for much of the first half, hammering Donegal's kick-out and winning seven in succession and nine from 11 overall. It illustrated the quality of what Paul Durcan does and the understanding he has with his outfield colleagues.
O'Shea's early prominence was supplemented by the energy and creativity of Keith Higgins who was started in attack where he spent much of the 2013 championship.
Higgins' versatility allows that and it's a real option again but his afternoon was cut short in the 24th minute with hamstring injury. Rory Kavanagh, making an impressive first start since coming out of retirement, found his range in the 20th minute when Michael Murphy put him in with a short free to level it at 0-4 each. There was parity three more times after that before defender Brendan Harrison nudged them 0-8 to 0-7 ahead just before the interval.
"Having been destroyed on both it was good to go in only a point behind at half-time," admitted Gallagher. Neil Gallagher was black-carded seconds after coming on in the 45th minute but Donegal stayed composured after McLoone's goal.
Mayo got Seamus O'Shea, Andy Moran and Chris Barrett back into action for the first time this season while Conor Loftus showed glimpses of his potential.
Rochford isn't feeling the weight of a winless campaign so far. "I wouldn't call it pressure. There is pressure in every game. I'm not particularly concerned - there are four games to go. We're building a squad."
Scorers - Donegal: M Murphy 0-5 ( 2fs, 2 '45s), P McBrearty 0-4 (2fs), L McLoone 1-0, O MacNiallais, R McHugh 0-2 each, R Kavanagh 0-1. Mayo: E Regan 0-4 (4fs), D O'Connor 1-0 (pen) R Hennelly 0-2 1f 1 45), B Harrison, S Nally, S O'Shea, C Loftus, A O'Shea, L Keegan 0-1 each.
Donegal - P Boyle; E Doherty, N McGee, P McGrath; R McHugh, E McGee, E McHugh; M Murphy, R Kavanagh; H McFadden, F McGlynn, O MacNiallais; M Carroll, P McBrearty, M O'Reilly. Subs: M McElhinney for Carroll (19), A Thompson for O'Doherty (h-t), N Gallagher for McFadden (45), C Toye for Gallagher (BC, 47) L McLoone for E McGee (50), C Ward for O'Reilly (71).
Mayo - R Hennelly; B Harrison, G Cafferkey, M Hall; L Keegan, C Boyle, S Nally; T Parsons, J Gibbons; D O'Connor, A O'Shea, K McLoughlin; E Regan, C O'Shea, K Higgins. Subs: C Loftus for Higgins (inj, 24), A Moran for Regan (49), D Vaughan for O'Connor (53), C Barrett for Hall (59), S O'Shea for Gibbons (63), J Doherty for D O'Connor (69).
Ref - B Cassidy (Derry)