THE exchanges were tilting delicately towards Mayo as the game entered the final seconds of the half. Seizing another opportunity to test the cohesion of the Donegal defence, Seamus O’Shea punted a measured ball towards his brother on the edge of the box.
Three backs stood guard, his brother Aidan the lone Mayo man among them, all of them clambering for the dropping ball. Aidan won it, turned to his right, shook off the three defenders and guided the ball low behind a further four retreating Donegal men into the opposite corner of the net.
That was the catalyst, the discerning moment of Mayo’s march to the semi-final and a date with All-Ireland favourites Dublin. Donegal, a bit leg weary, were stunned. Time, it seemed, was catching up with some old guttering stars.
At the other end of Croke Park Michael Murphy, their big hope of balancing the benefits that Aidan O’Shea brought to Mayo, remained strangely quiet, subdued by the defensive guile of a rejuvenated Ger Cafferkey.
The achievement of the Ballina man was inspired by the surprise but judicious deployment of Barry Moran as a sweeper in the defence. Who would have thought of it? Barry Moran back in defence. Social media had gone wild with the pre-match confirmation that the Castlebar Mitchels man would replace Andy Moran.
It was a brave, imaginative tactic adopted by management, and it brought stability to a sector that had given rise to concern in recent games. Moran played the supporting role in defence and midfield intelligently.
When Cafferkey denied Murphy clean possession there was always someone to clean up, clear the lines, someone to deal with high ball, someone to intercept, to frustrate. In those roles Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle and Tom Cunniffe, until an injury forced him to retire in the second half, were magnificent.
Near the end when Moran was forced to retire following a fearless block on a shot destined for the net, his absence was felt, and filled only when Aidan O’Shea fell back to help out.
The Moran move also enabled others to push farther forward, and they played vital roles in liking with the forwards. None was more successful than Lee Keegan, revelling in the dual role of defender-cum-attacker with the football sense of the composed and accomplished wing back he has become those past few years.
He had Mayo’s first two points of the game from positions strategically assumed on the right flank of the attack, steadying scores between Michael Murphy’s first and second points.
He also overshadowed another of Donegal’s linchpins Odhrán MacNiallais, who was among the stars of their success over Galway, but whose form on this occasion forced his substitution.
The crowning action of the Westport man was accomplished by his goal just after the break. It was the clinching score ... whether intended or not. Keegan had again freed himself from MacNiallais to pick his way through the defence and, taking a pass from Cillian O’Connor, curved the ball beautifully with his left foot into the top corner of the net.
Maybe a point was the intention, but as the old saying goes fortune assists the brave. It was no more fortuitous that the second goal which Donegal nicked in the All-Ireland from Mayo three years ago.
IT was difficult to know exactly from what position Donal Vaughan operated. What he did, though, he did well, breaking from midfield with speed, and also back propping up the defence. He did, however, pick up a black card, having also been dismissed against Donegal in the National League. Another black could rule him out if Mayo make further progress.
Mayo won midfield, too. Tom Parsons played a defensive role from midfield, fielding in his old inimitable style and delivering constructively. Partnering him Seamus O’Shea was as ever unstinting in his work and courage, one of his winning turnovers in particular a classic lesson in the art of dispossessing an opponent.
Aidan O’Shea was of course the heartbeat and the fulcrum of the attacking unit, many passages of play funnelled through him. But the selfless work of Kevin McLoughlin and Jason Doherty, their tackling and interventions were also purposeful and effective.
Doherty’s three points bore the confidence of a man comfortable in his niche, and the Knockmore man, who carved out a couple of fine points, displayed once more a penchant for timely interventions in defusing tricky situations.
Diarmuid O’Connor was industrious – if a little nervous, it seemed on occasions. Cillian O’Connor, however, was not the pre-injury Cillian we have known. Although he lacked nothing in the way of spirit and hard work, the Cillian of old would almost certainly have bagged a goal or two on Saturday. You feel he is still encumbered by the effects of injury.
And that’s a pity, because the Mayo forward line needs the intelligence and aptitude he brings to the game, the confidence that is required for the likes of Dublin. Remember the coolness with which, in the face of Hill 16 intimidation, he once plonked ball after ball over the bar. Hopefully, that old resilience will have returned in time for the semi-final.
So with the fundamentals resolved, Mayo settled into concentrating on their own game, not Donegal’s, as we suggested in our preview, they might. And although a bit tentative early on they soon established a winning pulse, becoming stronger and more energetic in pursuing chances.
For a while Aidan O’Shea found the close attention of Neil McGee difficult to handle, but that spectacular goal singled him out as an iconic figure in Gaelic football with leadership qualities that have been in short supply in Mayo over the years.
Not everything, however, remained unblemished on Saturday. For while their minds were shaped for the task in hand, they lost concentration for a long period in the second half, lost their rhythm and failed to dispatch Donegal with the conviction of an all-conquering side.
Poor shooting, shots falling short, overcooked passes and rushes of blood to the head that lured them into the occasional aimless delivery threatened to wipe the gloss of the win.
They weren’t sufficiently clinical to finish the game off. A goal in those moments of inattention – and Donegal did come close once or twice – would almost certainly have ignited their recovery.
Those chances eventually dissipated as the Mayo defence regrouped and held firm. But a serious setback was incurred near the end with the dismissal of Kevin Keane, who had just replaced Ger Cafferkey.
Foolishly, the Westport man retaliated to provocation from Michael Murphy, and after consultation with his umpires, the referee had no hesitation in issuing a straight red card. He misses the semi-final and reduces management’s options in defence.