Mayo 2-13 Donegal 0-11
The remorseless application of all they have picked up in four previous years on the road, losing by fine margins, and watching teams more or less their equal walking away with the most coveted piece of silverware in Mayo powered the Connacht champions into a fifth successive All-Ireland semi-final on Saturday evening in Croke Park.
There were abundant signs that Donegal were spent after a gruelling season with its attendant drain on resources but Mayo gave an impressive display.
Chief amongst the lessons learned has been the importance of goals and they managed to raise two perfectly-timed green flags and maintain a clean sheet at the other end.
Aidan O’Shea, whose new floating role has included enormously destructive periods at full forward, had edged the first half of his battle with Neil McGee and the Donegal cover but the verdict went unanimous in injury-time when O’Shea took control of a dropping ball despite the presence of his marker and Mark McHugh and bulldozed through them before finishing precisely into the net to give Mayo an ominous looking four-point lead, 1-7 to 0-6.
Just after the break, Lee Keegan – thriving in the latitude granted by following Mark McHugh – floated in the decisive score.
He insisted afterwards that the shot hadn't been an under-hit attempt at a point but, either way, the ball dipped over Paul Durcan and under the bar into the top right-hand corner of the net.
Few would argue that the flying wing back didn't deserve his 1-2 after a display of intelligent restraint and hard running, with captain Keith Higgins again showing his effectiveness by combining judgement and too-hot-to-handle acceleration, as the occasion demanded.
It was impressive to note how Mayo patiently ticked the various boxes necessary to deal with their opponents.
This was done with composure and focus – a defensive system cautious enough to keep the match within control in the early stages but prosecuted with enough counter-attacking vigour to turn the screw on a faltering Donegal.
Barry Moran was brought in before the throw-in to provide the supplementary defensive cover and his screening played a role in limiting the damage done by Michael Murphy.
The Donegal captain was still his team’s outstanding contributor. He may have been sited at full forward because of questionable fitness but from the first point in the sixth minute squeezed over from the right to give the Ulster side the lead for the only time in the match – it lasted just a minute – until the end he carried the principal threat to Mayo.
Moran's intelligence in the sweeping role was praised afterwards by joint-manager Noel Connelly and the big Castlebar centrefielder's commitment was evident all the way through until his forced departure with a blood injury incurred on the hour when throwing himself at Mark McHugh to block a goal chance.
Tom Parsons, tipped for defensive duties before the match, played an orthodox enough role – within the context of a thoroughly modern football contest – and was prominent, making himself available for driving runs and getting back to help out in defence – a deft tackle to dispossess Colm McFadden showing the range of his capabilities.
The third man in the centrefield triumvirate was the indefatigable Séamus O'Shea, whose appetite for work was complemented by some fine distribution – two terrific balls into his brother Aidan and Kevin McLoughlin yielding 1-1 just before half-time.
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher honestly refused to make an issue out of the wear-and-tear on his team but the impact was detectable. Frank McGlynn maintained the unstinting efforts of a titanic season but the machine wasn't in full working order.
Karl Lacey didn't break down but his forays lacked the usual dynamism and at his best he would have been too sharp to commit the error of lofting a hand-pass across his own goal, inviting an alert McLaughlin to drift in and punch the ball over the bar.
In attack the best forward of their early season Patrick McBrearty demonstrated again that he’s not fully right, struggling to get into the game and shooting another couple of wides without raising a flag.
Eamon McGee lasted the course but Cillian O’Connor was very influential and but for a spell uncharacteristically poor marksmanship, would have finished with a lot more than three points.
Neil McGee had to retire injured with a hamstring tweak but by then O’Shea’s wrecking ball had swung and the Mayo colossus dropped back for much of the second half, leaving others to rotate the full-forward duties.
Mayo went into sleep mode for a quarter of the match: hitting a sequence of shots short into Durcan, O'Connor missing frees and a 45 – as well as over-cooking a hand-pass that prompted Donal Vaughan, for reasons best known to himself, to haul down the intercepting defender and earn a 53rd-minute black card from referee David Gough.
During this lull in activity Mayo at least conceded no more than one point themselves and so prevented any fundamental weakening of their position but it will give Connelly and Pat Holmes plenty to bark about at the video review.
Other concerns will include the injury to an abductor muscle that caused goalkeeper David Clarke to withdraw at half-time and a red card for Kevin Keane, which ended the briefest of stints on the field after about three minutes.
So, another semi-final on the horizon and Dublin won’t entirely welcome the sight of what’s coming.
Mayo: D Clarke; K Higgins (0-1), G Cafferkey, T Cunniffe; L Keegan (1-2), D Vaughan, C Boyle; S O'Shea,B Moran; D O'Connor, T Parsons, J Doherty (0-3); C O'Connor (0-3, two frees), A O'Shea (1-0), K McLoughlin (0-2).
Subs: Chris Barrett for Cunniffe, 32 mins; Rob Hennelly for Clarke,half-time; Patrick Durcan for Vaughan (black card), 54 mins; Andy Moran (0-1)for Barry Moran (blood), 61-70 mins; Alan Freeman (0-1) for Seamie O'Shea, 65mins; Kevin Keane for Cafferkey, 70 min
Donegal: P Durcan;P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; R McHugh, K Lacey, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, O MacNiallais; C Toye (0-1), H McFadden, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy (0-8, four frees, one 45), C McFadden.
Subs: Martin McIhinney for Toye, half-time; Anthony Thompson (0-1) for Neil McGee, 38mins; Leo McLoone (0-1) for MacNiallais, 40 mins
Referee:David Gough (Meath)