Rob Hennelly the hero as Mayo conjure late chaos to salvage Donegal draw

Goalkeeper’s last gasp free completes the year’s first great escape act in sodden Sligo

Mayo 0-11 Donegal 0-11

Just the usual madness. On the first Sunday of the new season, Rob Hennelly made light of a hugely difficult free - squally rain, last kick of the game, crowd-anxiety off the charts - to rescue the day for Mayo.

Never say die, part 1,000.

Here they were, outplayed for most of the day by Donegal. Down to 14-men for the closing 24 minutes - Stephen Coen, the new captain, isn’t the first nor won’t be the last man to acquire two yellow cards in trying to keep tabs on Michael Murphy.


Hennelly had already made three terrific goal saves and now they watched as he took his kick. Here the raw roar. Up against the world, huddled under a savage January sky and waiting for salvation. Just the way they like it.

If the Donegal squad weren’t already bruised after a tough afternoon, they’d kick themselves here. Their final total was hard-earned given the flow of their approach work and their failure to convert three goal chances cost them. The most clear-cut was the 51st minute penalty, which saw Coen leave the field after he resorted to wheeling Murphy when he won an aerial ball to which he had no right. It was 0-9 to 0-6 with 51 minutes gone and Donegal minds immediately turned to the sun-burnt day against Tyrone when Murphy had a penalty saved and was sent off in a bizarre 30 second period that arguably sent the All-Ireland season off into uncharted country. A murmur of surprise broke through the crowd when Patrick McBrearty stood over the ball. Then an explosion of Mayo joy as Hennelly saved the kick. Murphy sent the resultant 50 sailing through the wild afternoon. But Mayo lived on.

Afterwards, Declan Bonner laughed off the idea that the Tyrone miss was the reason why Murphy didn’t take the place-kick.

“No Michael has been about long enough now that I don’t think that is going to affect him. He is an experienced campaigner. I leave it between the two of them in terms of the penalties. Patrick was the guy that took it. Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t. We move on. It was disappointing because if it went on him, then it’s game over.”

But it’s never game over with Mayo. That’s the thing. Donegal made the fatal mistake of allowing them to hang around even though they had owned the ground for the first half.

This was not Markievicz Park at its most regal. The scoreboard wasn’t working. Nor was Ben Bulben: the best sporting background in European sport completely vanished in the northwest mist.

According to the MC for the afternoon, several recklessly parked cars were causing pandemonium in the Sligo traffic plan and someone’s wedding ring had been found and handed in by half-time. Whether this had anything to do with Mayo’s stuttering first half performance was anyone’s guess.

But the team did put some early stress on the lifelong vows between themselves and the Mayo crowd. They managed just two scores in the opening period: a free from Ryan O’Donoghue and a left foot strike by Eoghan McLaughlin just before half-time. Apart from the riveting individual skirmishes - McBrearty and Padraig O’Hora, Coen and Murphy - there was nothing to ignite a large Mayo crowd who gathered as a bonfire awaiting someone to strike a match.

Donegal, in contrast, looked a different outfit to the fretful team who appeared in the McKenna Cup final last weekend. They chalked up five points in the first 12 minutes stringing together eye-catching ball work as they thoughtfully negotiated the packed Mayo defence. Murphy directed operations but the minutes when he played inside forward alongside McBrearty was another reminder that although he is indispensible for Donegal further out the field, he is virtually unplayable as an inside forward.

He won a mark and a free in 10 minutes, converted both and his presence helped Donegal work two goals chances. But then they went 14 minutes with loads of possession and no score and left the field just 0-7 to 0-3 ahead. Michael Langan struck four gorgeous points over the afternoon and Ryan McHugh glided through the heavy fare like the McHugh of old.

Donegal’s defence, led by Brendan McCole and the hyper-active Odrhan McFadden Ferry, neutralised Mayo’s inside line and for much of the day were composed as they played their way through Mayo’s hugely aggressive press. Young Conor O’Donnell, a late introduction, had a fine day. But for all the football they played in the first half, they led by just 0-7 to 0-3.

Aidan O’Shea was introduced after halft-ime and immediately, Mayo took on a different aspect. The day briefly cleared and then turned stormy again and it was as though the Mayo team took this as a sign. Jason Doherty, the prodigal son returned after a horrific period of injuries, nailed two huge points to keep Mayo in touch. Paddy Durcan has a habit of stepping up to land points which act as battle cries. So it went here. For the last 10, Donegal were holding on for dear life as Mayo went hell for leather. They inflicted their patented brand of chaos on the last 15 minutes, throwing caution to the wind.

This is where they are happiest, when anything at all can happen - and inevitably does. Ryan O’Donoghue thumped a huge free in the 70th minute which even Countess Markievicz herself would have called wide. But the umpires gave it. After then, it was only a matter of how Mayo would do the jaws-of-defeat thing.

The teams trooped off, wrecked and satisfied. The rain fell with a vengeance, it was raw cold. Aidan O’Shea ran sprints with the reserves on the empty field long after the crowd had gone. It’s fair to say the show’s on the road again.

Mayo: 1 R Hennelly (0-1, free); 18 B Harrison, 3 S Coen, 4 P O'Hora; 5 P Durcan (0-2), 6 D MCHugh, 7 E McLaughlin (0-1); 8 C O'Shea, 9 C Loftus; 10 F McHugh, 11 A Orme, 12 D O'Connor; 13 T Conroy, 14 J Doherty (0-3), 15 R O'Donoghue (0-4, three frees). Subs: 21 A O'Shea for 11 A Orme (half-time), 24 B Walsh for 10 F McDonagh (half-time), 17 S Callinan for 6 D McHugh (48 mins), 22 J Flynn for 9 C Loftus (50 mins), 25 P Towey for 8 C O'Shea (70 mons).

Donegal: 1 S Patton; 2 C Ward, 3 B McCole, 27 EB Gallagher; 4 O McFadden Ferry, 6 P Brennan, 7 T McClenaghan; 8 C McGonagle, 18 M Murphy (0-4, mark, 0-2 frees); 10 C Thompson, 11 P Mogan, 28 M Langan (0-4); 5 R McHugh (0-1), 13 P MCBrearty (0-1, free), 25 C O'Donnell (0-1). Subs: 9 J McGee for 10 C Thompson (10 mins, inj), 17 J McKelvey for 2 C Ward (50 mins), 30 N O'Donnell for 25 C O'Donnell (57 mins), 20 E O'Donnell for 7 T McCleneghan ( 58 mins). 22 E Doherty for 4 E McFadden-Ferry (64 mins).

Referee: N Mooney.

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times