Tomás Ó Sé: 'Donegal have to live on the edge while still retaining the tactical wherewithal to see out big games'
It's hard not to recall a famous scene from 'Raging Bull' - where Robert De Niro portrays boxer Jake LaMotta - when thinking about Mayo.
After being beaten to a pulp by Sugar Ray Robinson in one of their six epic contests, LaMotta turns to his victorious opponent and remarks "Hey, Ray, I never went down, man! You never got me down, Ray! You hear me, you never got me down."
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That's Mayo in a nutshell and even though they have suffered big injury setbacks with Diarmuid O'Connor, Matthew Ruane and Paddy Durcan, in spite of losing to Roscommon in Connacht and getting humiliated by Kerry in Killarney, they still have a chance to turn it around and make the last four.
Every time they play it's a rollercoaster ride. When they win they are up on a pedestal - and when they lose it's the end of the line. James Horan needs to elicit one more big performance with a huge push needed to achieve that and Castlebar is the only show in town this weekend.
Can they win? Hell yeah. If they improve their restarts - Rob Hennelly could get the nod to start - if they stop turning over ball like they did against Kerry and Meath in the first half and if they up their conversion rate, they probably will win.
But that's before they even contemplate zoning in on Donegal. It has to be a given that they will improve on those areas. Durcan, Keith Higgins and possibly Diarmuid O'Connor will help big time in this regard while the half-crocked Lee Keegan and Aidan O'Shea have had two weeks to get the bodies right too.
Knockout championship football in the last round of the Super 8s is exactly why the new format was introduced and Donegal heading to MacHale Park to face Mayo with both of their seasons on the line is everything we have craved.
Everyone proclaimed how much of an epic Donegal and Kerry was and after watching it from the high camera view behind the goal earlier this week, it was amazing to see both teams going at it hammer and tongs.
Even though I can't believe I'm saying it, Donegal were naive enough at times defensively. They are more committed going forward but it is certainly taking away from the hard unit that was nearly impossible to score against when we played them in 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final and they are relying on one-on-one situations a lot more.
That is the right way to go with a view to long-term success but they could be more aggressive and closer to their men up the field so that their full-back line isn't exposed. They could play that style a little more and tonight is a brilliant opportunity for them to go to the next level.
This is a new Donegal team and they have the ability to do so. You have to give Declan Bonner unbelievable credit for who he has surrounded himself with. Stephen Rochford and Karl Lacey will get all the credit but it was Bonner that put this dream team together and decided what philosophy and type of football he wanted his side to play.
They have been outstanding this season but the way which they beat Tyrone was a bit false as it wasn't the real Tyrone we all know. Their forward play capitulated and everything else followed suit to create a false perception of where Donegal are at.
The Kerry game gave us a clearer picture but if you look closely at it Donegal could be much better. They would have won that game if zoning in on a few areas like the opposition kick-out, their own defensive unit, use of direct ball to their forwards and physically imposing themselves.
They have to boss matches and live on the edge while still retaining the tactical wherewithal to see out big games. Living on the edge is going out and knowing that you will hit a wall because you're so exhausted.
You have to be in your marker's face. It's so hard to stay tight with your man when the ball is far away but you can't give him an inch. You need to go to the limit where you're close to fouling but you get your hands back out and push every single play to the limit. It's insanely intense to keep it up but that's the level that you need.
You're grabbing a hold of your man when the ball is up the field and he's thinking, 'Jesus Christ, if this lad is grabbing a hold of me and the ball is 100 yards away, I'm in for a horrible day here'. You have to get inside their heads.
They had that against Tyrone - despite Tyrone collapsing Donegal were still manic. There's scope for Donegal to get more intense and turn the screw to become serious contenders. They have better individuals than Mayo, especially in the forward line, but it doesn't give them any right to win the game. Kilkenny made Croke Park look small against a Limerick juggernaut last weekend by just not allowing them to breathe.
Let no one think they were playing off the cuff but it was the work-rate and running off the ball which won the day and Mayo are well capable of doing the exact same thing to Donegal if allowed. They are well capable of out-muscling them and collapsing their kick-out.
Kerry showed Donegal that they need to go after David Clarke's kick-outs but this is an area they are really falling down on. When Kerry took to the field without David Moran, I thought Donegal would squeeze the life out of Shane Ryan to force him long where Hugh McFadden and Jason McGee would fancy their chances.
But the speed which Ryan had the ball on the tee every time was insane. His players were also helping him out in a way which I've never seen Kerry footballers assist before as they were automatically tuned in to make the run. Every time he put down the ball, it was gone to a receiver in a flash. That's not good enough from Donegal. You won't win every kick-out but they need to be turning teams over three or four times a half like they did in the closing period against Kerry. This is the next level they need to reach.
When Donegal have a scoreable free, there's time to push up and organise a press but they did it horribly and there were three occasions where Kerry got scores from those situations, quick kick-outs when Donegal weren't set up after taking a free shot on goal. That is criminal because they should be dictating matters.
Mayo certainly have issues with their restarts. For God's sake, go for the jugular and put doubts in their minds. Do not let them build. Ryan McHugh will probably have to prepare for a war with Keegan because he will be zoned in on. The same goes for Michael Murphy and the worry is if both of them are kept quiet and with Eoghan Bán Gallagher out injured, who is going to make those crucial runs?
I remember the All-Ireland club final against Caltra and my man was blocking me from making runs the whole first half and saying it to Darragh at half-time. He looked me dead in the eye and just said, 'Deal with it, get into the game'. It was my problem and no one else's and McHugh may need to be even more creative than normal to avoid Keegan.
Michael Langan, Ciarán Thompson, Oisín Gallen and Eoin McHugh will have to step up and keep kicking scores from play. If rumours are true of Paddy McBrearty missing out through injury and the absence of Jason McGee then Donegal could be goosed. I'd find it hard to see them winning without that pair, on top of Eoghan Bán, but if they are fit and play well Donegal will take beating tonight if they impose themselves. Simple as.
Mayo have nothing to lose and everything to gain and that makes them dangerous.
There's more pressure on Donegal tonight and they need to be ready for all-out, calculated war with Rochford's inside information just tipping the scales if they have the full complement.
A week to prepare for an All-Ireland semi-final for the winner is a joke, it's wrong. It's mad stuff having to go again with such little break and something which has to be looked into properly.
While it looks like a nothing game to many in Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow, it's crucial for Cork that they pick up a victory against Roscommon. If they can, and I think they will, their pure aim for next year will be to beat Kerry.
They need to prove they can get motivated for lower-ranked teams, just like they energised themselves for the Dubs and Tyrone, before driving into the winter with optimism.