Galway reborn as 13-man Donegal sent crashing out

Seán Armstrong’s influence key as Tribesmen seal quarter-final slot

Galway 4-17 Donegal 0-14

A summer’s evening can change everything. Galway came into Markievicz Park – easily one of the wonders of world sporting stadia – tentative and unsure. They left like a crowd reborn. Donegal traipsed out to the minor consolation that at least the journey back to the hills was relatively short. Late in this hugely one-sided game, the announcer declared that a Donegal season ticket had been found and could be reclaimed at the press box. Somehow, the Donegal folk saw the funny side.

This was a different Galway from the Connacht final. A purposeful fury informed their play and the returned man of maroon football was the conduit.

From the beginning, Seán Armstrong advertised his return with an attitude that was sharp and imaginative and seemed to electrify the entire forward line and deepen their belief, while Ian Burke brought a new inventiveness to Galway's approach on his championship debut.

Armstrong made and nonchalantly struck over his first free and before 10 minutes had passed, he had added two terrific points from play and then made the searing burst along the right touchline to link with Ian Burke for Galway's first goal, palmed home by the rampaging Johnny Heaney.

That left the score at 1-5 to 0-4 after 18 minutes and the packed house, filled mainly with the yellow and green of Donegal, might have been forgiven for settling in for a taut, absorbing high summer contest.

After all, Donegal had rattled off the previous three points, working the ball through Michael Murphy, operating as a kind of midfield playmaker and constantly looking to source ball for Paddy McBrearty to have a crack. It worked but even in the first quarter of the game, it looked predictable. And the closeness of the score was deceptive.

Even in the warm-up, the physical difference between the teams was striking. Galway were without Fintan O’Curroin but still towered over and out-muscled the slender Donegal men; without the central strength of Murphy and Neil McGee, Donegal would have been blown away sooner. As it was, Galway were winning one on one battles all over the field.

Caolan Ward couldn't handle the bullish strength and directness of Damien Comer and was forced to concede a free which Armstrong converted. And with that, something seemed to click for the maroon team. They had nothing to fear.

Donegal were already under heavy pressure on their restarts and even though they brought 14 men into their own half, the cover was flimsy. Galway just tore through them. A casual point effort by Shane Walsh clipped off the post in the 25th minute and when Murphy, trying to be everywhere all at once, slipped on collecting it, goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley was forced to drag down Thomas Flynn, who was first to the ball.

Referee Anthony Nolan had no choice but to issue black and with that, Donegal lost their best performer in the championship. Liam Silke's conversion was ice cool and with that, Galway were on their way while Donegal slipped into a black hole.

Heaney added another identical goal just before half-time and replacement goalkeeper Peter Boyle denied Michael Daly a fourth. In the space of 15 minutes, Donegal found themselves trailing by 3-9 to 0-6 and suddenly looked terribly young and very lost. There was a full half of football left to play.

At half-time, the talk among the crowd of 10,564 was of how much worse the evening could get for Donegal. A fair bit, was the answer. In the 44th minute, Michael Murphy was black carded. Two minutes later, his All-Ireland winning team-mate Martin McElhinney was subject to same verdict by referee Anthony Nolan, who was fast becoming the subject to the wrath of the home crowd. Rory Gallagher had already used all his substitutes: Donegal were down to 13 men.

A strange thing happened after that. The younger Donegal players actually began to play and express themselves. Michael Langan fired a good point and then Patrick McBrearty, showing real fire, let go with a thunderous effort which smacked off the crossbar. It was a good enough strike to have Kerry great Mikey Sheehy shifting in his seat. But it wasn't to be.

In the 59th minute, McBrearty saw his penalty and follow-up saved by Bernard Power, restored to starting goalkeeper by Kevin Walsh just before kick-off. Still, Donegal struck another 0-2 and the weird thing was that had McBrearty's two goal strikes landed, it would have been a four-point game.

It was clear that Galway had no interest in stitching it into Donegal but they also played abysmal football in the second half. A colder team would have kept pouring it on. As it was, Walsh sent Michael Meehan in to a huge roar of acclaim late on. The Western crowd prayed for another score but had to be content with a late goal from Danny Cummins. That score completed a restorative evening for Connacht football: Mayo and Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

For Donegal, it was a sign of the times. The great Karl Lacey sat hunched on the field when it was over. It was hard to believe he was part of a team that dismantled Dublin three summers ago. That was then, this is now.

GALWAY: 1 B Power; 2 E Kerin, 3 D Kyne, 4 C Sweeney; 5 G O'Donnell (0-2), 6 G Bradshaw, 7 L Silke (1-0, pen); P Conroy (0-1), 9 J Heaney (2-2); 10 T Flynn, 11 M Daly (0-1), 15 S Walsh (0-1); 22 I Burke (0-1), 14 D Comer (0-1), 23 S Armstrong (0-6 , four frees).

Substitutes: 17 D Wynne for 4 C Sweeney (58 mins), 12 E Brannigan (0-2) for 15 S Walsh (60 mins), 13 D Cummins (1-0) for 11 M Daly (64 mins), 25 M Meehan for 14 D Comer (67 mins), 18 D Walsh for 6 G Bradshaw (70 mins), 19 C McDaid for 5 G O'Donnell (70 mins),

DONEGAL: 1 MA McGinley; 2 P McGrath, 3 N McGee; 4 C Ward; 5 R McHugh, 6 K Gillespie, 7 E B Gallagher; 11 F McGLynn, 8 J McGee; 14 M Murphy (0-4, three frees, one 45), 19 M McHugh, 12 E McHugh; 15 H McFadden, 17 J Brennan, 13 P McBrearty (0-6, two frees).

Substitutes: 16 P Boyle for 1 MA McGinley (25 mins, black card), 22 M Langan (0-1) for 17 J Brennan (34 mins), 21 M McElhinney (0-1) for 11 F McGlynn (34 mins, inj), 18 K Lacey for 6 K Gillespie (half-time), 9 C Thompson for 15 H McFadden 43 mins), 10 M O'Reilly (0-2) for 12 E McHugh (43 mins).

Referee: A Nolan (Wicklow).

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a sports writer with The Irish Times