O'Shea impact helps to steer Mayo to safety
Mayo 1-12 Donegal 0-13
Fittingly, it ended with Aidan O'Shea fetching high above Michael Murphy some 40 metres out from his own goal that he had dropped back to provide a screen to as Mayo protected a hard-fought two-point lead.
As a snapshot of the last half-hour of this frantic Allianz Division 1 Football League match, it was about as perfect as you could get. For O'Shea's introduction on 45 minutes was the adjustment of temperature that Mayo badly required.
Within a minute he had dispossessed the Donegal captain who had been so dominant through the middle up to that point. And that set the tone for a different mood, more fractious, edgier, always simmering, the environment this Mayo team arguably thrive best in.
They were 0-13 to 1-6 down at that stage and lacking direction. O'Shea gave it to them in a most forceful way, barrelling into everything around him to create a different set of conditions that Donegal didn't appreciate in front of 14,102 at MacHale Park.
At every subsequent flashpoint - and there were many - he was there in the middle of it. Donegal players became almost consumed by him and slowly their own control eroded.
Even Murphy lost his way and was among a number of players squaring up to Mayo's totemic figure after referee Cormac Reilly had blown for full-time with possession in O'Shea's grasp.
The pair had been among a quartet yellow-carded on 53 minutes for an incident along the sideline - Donegal's Jason McGee and Ciaran Thompson were also cautioned - sparked by a heavy Thompson challenge.
Reilly's appointment for this match, his first involving Mayo since the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay against Kerry in Limerick which angered so many Mayo supporters, had been a talking point and control was difficult to establish once that initial flashpoint erupted.
Donegal defender Eamonn Doherty was red-carded after innocuously kicking out at O'Shea on 58 minutes, just as Mayo were beginning to squeeze.
Cillian O'Connor pointed the subsequent free after snatching three previous attempts into the wind, something of a recurring theme for him in this campaign.
But he nailed his next free after Eoghan Ban Gallagher had fouled him before Lee Keegan floated over off his left foot in similar style to his winner against Tyrone in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final for parity on 62 minutes.
By that stage Roscommon's win against Cavan in Dr Hyde Park was virtually assured but Mayo had the bit between their teeth with Keegan, Keith Higgins, O'Connor and O'Shea all with their shoulders to the wheel.
They finished with two more O'Connor points, one from a free, to shut out Donegal completely for the last 34 minutes (including five minutes of added time).
That was a disappointment to Donegal manager Rory Gallagher after such a productive campaign that really has pointed them optimistically to the future. "It is disappointing to have kicked 11 points into a breeze and just two after that. We did not get up the field with the same frequency we had, we invested a lot of energy but Mayo finished a lot stronger."
Gallagher acknowledged Mayo's increased physical approach in the second half. "There was probably an element of that. If I had the physicality I would do the same. You have to give great credit to them, they fought really hard and so did we," he said, dismissing any notion that they had the brakes on to avoid a league final against Dublin.
"The league final was never mentioned. It was about coming here to win the game, and playing the likes of Mayo, Dublin, Tyrone, Monaghan and Kerry is what it is all about. The more experience of that we can accrue the better."
They played the best football here. Mayo got away early after an O'Connor penalty, courtesy of Mark Anthony McGinley's push on O'Connor as they tracked a third-minute Kevin McLoughlin delivery. Reilly didn't hesitate to point to the spot, certain that it had been inside the area.
He subsequently awarded Mayo just one first-half free by comparison to Donegal's 11 - as much down to Donegal's control of possession - but was more accommodating to the home side in the second half, to Donegal's displeasure.
Andy Moran, O'Connor and Danny Kirby followed up with points but then Donegal took over and Murphy was instrumental with Karl Lacey, Gallagher and Frank McGlynn adding punch from the half-back line.
Rookies Cian Mulligan and Jamie Brennan were on the mark with points while Ciaran Thompson added to his collection of sublime scores as they went from four down to lead by 0-11 to 1-5 at the break. At that moment you felt Mayo had more than a foot on the trap door.
But they have become the ultimate wagon-circlers in the game. Their backs were to the wall this time last year but nothing like the situation they found themselves in after losing to Cavan.
Manager Stephen Rochford was happy with the response but not that they had found themselves requiring another second-half escape act. "We put ourselves in the position that was needed. I say that more on a negative basis than positive. We had 16 shots in the first half and we only generated five scores. So we were wasteful."
They finish with two more points than last year but a nagging feeling that they haven't come up with too much different.
Scorers - Mayo: C O'Connor 1-5 (1-0 pen, 0-3fs); L Keegan 0-2; C Boyle, K Higgins, D Kirby, S Nally, A Moran 0-1 each. Donegal: M Murphy 0-4 (3fs, 1 45); C Mulligan 0-3; C Thompson 0-2; E Ban Gallagher, J Brennan, F McGlynn, M O'Reilly 0-1 each.
Mayo - D Clarke 7; B Harrison 7, K Higgins 8, C Barrett 7; C Boyle 6, L Keegan 7, P Durcan 6; D Kirby 6, T Parsons 6; S Nally 7, F Boland 5, D Drake 6; K McLoughlin 7, A Moran 6, C O'Connor 7. Subs: S Coen 7 for Boyle (h-t), D O'Connor 6 for Boland (h-t), A O'Shea 8 for Kirby (45), J Doherty 5 for Moran (59), D Vaughan for Drake (65), C O'Shea for Nally (74).
Donegal - MA McGinley 7; E Doherty 6, N McGee 7, P McGrath 7; K Lacey 7, F McGlynn 7, E Ban Gallagher 7; J McGee 6, M Murphy 8; C Mulligan 8, M Carroll 5, C Thompson 7; J Brennan 6, H McFadden 5, M O'Reilly 7. Subs: E McHugh 6 for McFadden (49), P McBrearty 5 for Lacey (59), M McHugh for McGlynn (65), M McElhinney for McGrath (68), M Langan for J McGee (69).
Ref - C Reilly (Meath).