Real Mayo stand up for fight at last
Donegal 0-13 Mayo 0-13
Daring rescue acts and edge-of-the-seat entertainment have become so synonymous with this Mayo football team but they took it to another level in Ballybofey yesterday with their 21-year record of Allianz Division 1 football on the line.
Three points down with five minutes of normal time remaining, they looked to be out of ideas against a home side defending in large numbers to preserve their advantage.
Aidan O'Shea punched a hole to win a free for Conor Loftus to narrow the gap to two but it was another six minutes before Eoin O'Donoghue, their rookie corner-back, surged forward for an inspiring score to set up a grandstand finish.
It would still take something special to bail them out and, right on cue, Kevin McLoughlin delivered with just 20 seconds of the added four minutes remaining, a booming point off his right foot to equalise and ensure Mayo remain a Division 1 team for a 22nd year.
McLoughlin is not new to this situation having done something similar to win their second-last league match in Omagh on this very weekend last year when, similarly, everything was on the line. Once again his conviction, accuracy and bravery to go for the shot from such distance was to be commended.
"The things that were important - one was getting a result and two well, part of the reason that I am back in management is that there is huge character and determination in that group," said Mayo manager Stephen Rochford afterwards.
They wear their status as the longest team in top-flight football like a badge of honour and it was protected ferociously when it mattered most in the closing stages.
Donegal will rue not nailing this game down earlier, especially considering the chance Patrick McBrearty had just before Mayo broke to engineer the McLoughlin equaliser.
The Kilcar man, back after missing the previous two games through injury, dropped a shot short but only after turning back into trouble to get on his trusted left side when there were other options inside him.
Having been magnificent in just about all the games he played - including the first half of this game - no blame for Donegal's drop will fall on him and manager Declan Bonner was quick to emphasise that afterwards, but it was a clear chance to kill the game.
"We had chances at the end and we did not take them," Bonner pointed out. "It can be a cruel game at times.
"We did not get the rub of the green and we did not convert those chances late on which would have seen us through. We are not going to be laying the finger of blame on anyone.
"It was one of those campaigns where maybe it was our destiny to go back into Division 2. There were a lot of things that went against us, but we played 34 players and blooded a lot of players who will have benefited from it."
Bonner was critical of the amount of time allowed after McLoughlin's equaliser, seeking to address this in the immediate aftermath with referee Anthony Nolan.
The game was held up for almost 90 seconds because of a flare-up and when Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton restarted the game it was brought to an end.
That they managed to preserve their unbeaten record in Ballybofey, now stretching to 20 games, will have been lost in the disappointment of going down.
Donegal missed the injured Ryan McHugh but they had plenty of players to make those driving runs from deep positions, Frank McGlynn and Eoghan Bán Gallagher chief among them.
But it was Michael Murphy who instigated so much for Donegal from the centre-forward/midfield role he took up, winning kick-outs and making big territorial gains when he carried at the Mayo defence.
Murphy was critical in that period during the first half when they came from 0-5 to 0-1 behind after 10 minutes to score seven unanswered points and lead by three, 0-8 to 0-5, by the 25th minute.
Mayo were out of the blocks smartly and when they played football fast and frantic they once again underlined how hard they are to play against.
Diarmuid O'Connor might have had a goal but for a smart block from Patton but Andy Moran pinched three points as everything revolved around O'Shea from centre-forward.
Once Donegal got to grips with that middle channel however, and Murphy's influence began to tell, momentum switched and some of their points were of the highest quality.
McBrearty's two points from play, despite being well shadowed by Caolan Crowe, stood out while Jamie Brennan showed once again why he has a bright Donegal future.
By the break it was 0-9 to 0-6 in Donegal's favour but with wind advantage to come Mayo still felt the game was well within reach.
Mayo got to within a point through a Loftus free on 48 minutes but Donegal edged clear again.
Without Cillian O'Connor and Lee Keegan, who have played recent games, and Chris Barrett, Brendan Harrison, Donie Vaughan and Keith Higgins who are long-term absentees, Mayo have done well to avoid the drop.
They'll also feel that players like Stephen Coen, Loftus and Eoin O'Donoghue stood up to the pressure of having to deliver here when so much was on the line.
Scorers - Donegal: P McBrearty 0-4 (2f); EB Gallagher, J Brennan, M Murphy (1f) 0-2 each; O MacNiallais, C Thompson, F McGlynn 0-1 each. Mayo: C Loftus 0-6 (5f); A Moran 0-3; K McLoughlin 0-2; E O'Donoghue, J Doherty 0-1 each.
Donegal - S Patton 7; P McGrath 6, N McGee 6, E Bán Gallagher 8; F McGlynn 7, L McLoone 6, E Doherty 6; H McFadden 7, O MacNiallais 6; P Brennan 6, M Murphy 9, C Thompson 7; P McBrearty 7, N O'Donnell 6, J Brennan 8. Subs: M McHugh 6 for O'Donnell (46), C Morrison 6 for P McGrath (inj, 59) S McBrearty 5 for Thompson (59), C Ward 5 for McGee (inj, 61), C Mulligan for J Brennan (67),
Mayo - D Clarke 7; E O'Donoghue 7, C Crowe 7, P Durcan 7; C Boyle 7, S Coen 6, K McLoughlin 7; T Parsons 6, S O'Shea 6; D Drake 6, A O'Shea 8, D O'Connor 6; J Doherty 6, A Moran 7, C Loftus 8. Subs: M Hall for Drake (63), F Boland for S O'Shea (65), B Moran for Parsons (67), 22 A Freeman for Doherty (69).
Ref - A Nolan (Wicklow).