Donegal complete extraordinary voyage from nowhere to eternity
ALL IRELAND FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP 2012: Donegal 2-11 Mayo 0-13:THE ERUPTION of gold streamers into the autumn sunshine as Donegal lifted Sam Maguire for the second time was accompanied by the delirium of their supporters.
A truly extraordinary passage from nowhere men two seasons ago to emphatically the best team in Ireland – with many of the same players – reached its destination after a performance replete with the familiar virtues of hard work and relentless commitment, but also featuring the more glamorous quality of individual excellence.
Captain Michael Murphy had his best match of the season, delivering a decisive performance on the biggest day of the year, while his brother-in-arms Colm McFadden did enough to leave him at the head of the pack in the consideration for Footballer of the Year.
The two-man full-forward line scored 2-8 between them, three frees apiece but also the goals that defined the match as being something Mayo would have to chase all afternoon. The match-up of Kevin Keane on Murphy was unhappy for Mayo and Ger Cafferkey was switched early enough but after the major damage had been done, and the young Mayo corner back acquitted himself well enough afterwards.
Twenty years is a long time to wait but in a GAA All-Ireland football final where the cumulative famine spanned 81 years, the winners’ two decades was but a spot of peckishness compared to Mayo’s eternal hunger.
The Connacht champions lost their sixth All-Ireland final since last winning in 1951 but irrelevant as it may appear to them, they did the big day the honour of contesting it right until the end.
Trailing 2-1 to nil after 11 minutes, they must have felt – and if not, plenty of others certainly did – that they were revisiting the nightmare of 2006 when Kerry streaked 10 points clear in as many minutes. But Mayo rallied and gave chase, fruitless though the pursuit would prove.
In a way this final was always going to be about Donegal: how they handled being favourites, how the hype would affect them, the extent to which an All-Ireland final would suck the oxygen from their usually tireless effort – and above all how they might respond to the adversity of things taking an unexpected turn.
This latter consideration was always taken to refer to how Jim McGuinness’s team would cope with falling seriously behind in a match for the first time.
The first of the unscripted surprises came with the irony of Donegal finding themselves so far ahead so early in proceedings. It might have felt like Groundhog Day to Mayo’s supporters, but the experience was quite novel for their counterparts.
Mayo were also unhappy that referee Maurice Deegan penalised Cillian O’Connor in the lead-up to the second goal instead of awarding him a free: a turnover of four points.
And whereas Mayo deserve kudos for standing up in adversity, Donegal played a part by having an attack of All-Ireland jitters not at the start but in the second quarter of the game when they did things that are anathema to McGuinness’s teachings: turning over soft ball and taking the more extravagant option of ambitious kick passes when simple popped passes would have preserved the possession.
They were also wasteful with good chances to extend the lead, although Mayo keeper David Clarke played his part with a good block that stopped McFadden getting a second goal in the 14th minute. Murphy fisted short a point chance minutes later.
In the 27th minute a careless kick across their own goal nearly gifted the ball in a dangerous position and shortly afterwards Murphy and Paddy McBrearty got their signals crossed and lost attacking position and on the uncharacteristic ineptitude went.
Mayo took 16 minutes to get on the scoreboard but largely replicated their pre-interval charge from last month’s Dublin semi-final. The deficit was down to three by the break, 0-7 to 2-4 but the recovery had sucked up a lot of favours to fortune: points by Michael Conroy and Enda Varley were in the almost miraculous category. At half-time the questions were to what extent Donegal’s pratfalls could be sorted out and how powerful Mayo’s gathering momentum might prove.
The Ulster champions would protect their lead in the third quarter and a strange thing happened. It looked as if Donegal were happier with the margin fluctuating between three, four, five, and back again than they had been with the outsized lead of the first half.
Murphy converted key frees and Donegal defended with aplomb. Anthony Thompson had a fine match and made a critical second-half intervention when a goal threatened.
Mayo hung on and Lee Keegan, their best player, was a constant threat raiding down the right, but there wasn’t enough support.
Their centrefield, which had been the engine of the team, didn’t have a productive afternoon and although there was no shortage of ball produced, the attacking platform didn’t function.
Donegal kept the scoreboard moving. Murphy fisted Christy Toye’s ball over the bar and it could have been under; and finally a superb movement ended with Neil Gallagher banging over their last point – a fitting grace note on an afternoon when the county won the battle of the northwest frontier and preserved a 100 per cent record over two All-Ireland finals.
Teams And Scorers
DONEGAL: 1. P Durcan; 3. N McGee, 5. E McGee, 2. P McGrath; 6. K Lacey, 4. F McGlynn (0-1), 7. A Thompson; 8. N Gallagher (0-1), 9. R Kavanagh; 10. M McHugh, 11. L McLoone, 12. R Bradley (0-1); 15 C McFadden (1-4, 0-3 frees), 14. M Murphy (1-4, 0-3 frees), 13. P McBrearty. Subs: 19. David Walsh for Bradley (40 mins), 17. M McElhinney (0-1) for McBreary (48 mins), 20. C Toye for McLoone (57 mins), 24. D Molloy for McElhinney (73 mins). Yellow card: E McGee (13 mins).
MAYO: 1. D Clarke; 4. K Higgins, 2. K Keane, 3. G Cafferkey; 5. L Keegan (0-1), 6. D Vaughan, 7. C Boyle; 8. B Moran, 9. A O’Shea; 10. K McLoughlin (0-2), 11. J Doherty, 12. A Dillon; 13. E Varley (0-2, 0-1 free), 14. C O’Connor (0-5, all frees), 15. M Conroy (0-1). Subs: 24. A Freeman for Doherty (50 mins), 23. J Gibbons (0-1) for Conroy (59 mins), 19. R Feeney (0-1) for Varley (61 mins), 22. S O’Shea (0-1) for Moran (69 mins). Yellow cards: Doherty (5 mins), Keegan (6 mins), O’Connor (13 mins), Vaughan (35+1 mins), A O’Shea (72 mins).
Referee:M Deegan (Laois).