Donegal's bite was early, deep and fatal


FOOTBALL ANALYST:DONEGAL WON this All-Ireland final with their approach from the very outset. They went straight for the jugular and drew a serious amount of blood. The long ball into their powerful inside men, Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, immediately brought the game to Mayo. It also left them with a huge mountain to climb.

Mayo have been forced to scale such peaks in finals before. At least they never stopped – I haven’t seen a team in 2012 work so hard around the middle third. But it was, yet again, a nightmare start comparable to 2004 and 2006.

Mayo got their match-ups wrong. Kevin Keane on Murphy led directly to the first goal. Keane simply could not handle the brute strength of the Donegal captain. I think they expected Murphy to start out the field initially but, very cleverly, he went towards the square.

But we shouldn’t be overly harsh on the Mayo management or Keane himself. It was an excellent take, fend and finish from my man of the match.

Murphy’s contribution was immense for 70 minutes. There was also some vital frees, that late fisted point, leadership in general and he took a massive belt in the game’s very last play. Mayo deserve credit for ensuring it remained a contest for the time it did.

Their industry made Donegal look sloppy. Aidan O’Shea was vital in all this. Granted, it took him a while to get into the game, but when he did Mayo started to win important possession to start their comeback.

Men like Lee Keegan and Donal Vaughan also stepped up, constantly harassing and harrying yellow jerseys. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mayo were struggling to hang on. That their work ethic was keeping them alive against a fitter, stronger team.

Just look at their scores. There were miracle points from Michael Conroy and Enda Varley. There was never a clear opening to unleash a shot on goal.

Paul Durcan had an easy game of it. Most of the Mayo opportunities were from out wide. There was nothing allowed come through the middle. Séamus Moynihan once compared facing Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final to Times Square at rush hour. Mayo players will understand what he means now.

There was the tigerish defending of Neil McGee and Eamon McGee had a terrific game, also in around the fullback line, while Mark McHugh was mopping up the breaks as he has done all season.

The Donegal motto seemed to be: No goals today. Once that held, the players themselves seemed to feel that they could not be beaten.

It was paramount for Mayo to start the second half well to ensure the feeling of inevitability couldn’t seep in. But McFadden kicked a free and while Cillian O’Connor responded, Frankie McGlynn raced up from corner back for his usual score. Wides from a kickable Enda Varley free and Michael Conway left a massive gulf between the teams. Mayo really needed those two attempts to go over the bar.

They were also in desperate need of a physical presence in their inside forward line. Putting O’Shea in there after 58 minutes was far too late. Donegal led 2-9 to 0-7 at that stage. And anyway, Eamon McGee cancelled out his presence close to goal, breaking down several high balls to supporting Donegal defenders.

The fitness levels of this year’s All-Ireland champions have been phenomenal. As Mayo visibly, and understandably, tired midway through the second half there was McGee, McGlynn and Anthony Thompson haring up and down the field to support the counter-attack.

Jim McGuinness must be lauded for knowing his players so well. Taking off three forwards can backfire but McGuinness must have great faith in his panel. He took off Leo McLoone for Christy Toye, knowing he would get 20 influential minutes from the veteran. Ryan Bradley and Patrick McBrearty were also replaced by David Walsh and Martin McElhinney but Donegal never lost their shape. The system held up as well with all three subs fitting in seamlessly.

That’s the sign of a good manager, he knew to trust this trio to do the same job.

Mayo needed a period of utter dominance, as witnessed against Dublin, to have any chance of recovery from the early goals. And while there was some great points taken, the string of scores that ultimately dethroned Dublin in the semi-final was not in evidence yesterday.

Donegal did wane ever so slightly, they did concede more frees, unnecessary frees, than usual. That surprised me. It just shows that no team can fully avoid the immense mental challenge that comes in an All-Ireland final.

You also must commiserate with Mayo. Yet another All-Ireland final defeat but I do feel they are a work in progress. There is clearly a deep well of talent in this squad. This is proved by the fact they thrived even after losing marquee forward Andy Moran to injury.

My only concern for them, going into next season, would be that they have a lot of similar forwards and none of them are in the mould of Murphy or McFadden. Moving O’Shea inside is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul so I think they need to unearth a target man in order to improve. But the future remains bright for Mayo football.

The potential future for Donegal? I think it will take a seriously well-rounded football team to beat them as long as Jim McGuinness is at the helm. There are a few more All-Irelands in them if they continue to reach full potential.

It’s not just the physicality of them, it is their fitness, the individual skill levels of the entire panel and, of course, the system. Their dedication to this system these past two years has been immense. There is more to come. That seems obvious from just watching how committed they are to every duty out on the field.

They beat Tyrone, Kerry, Cork and now Mayo to win the All-Ireland. Few are won harder.

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