Something’s got to give as western rivals face relegation shootout

Mayo will forfeit top-flight status if they lose to Donegal in their Ballybofey stronghold

Donegal’s Michael Murphy and Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea battle for possession  in last year’s league clash in Castlebar . Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho

Donegal’s Michael Murphy and Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea battle for possession in last year’s league clash in Castlebar . Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho

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Shortly after Donegal had defeated Mayo in what was notoriously poor All-Ireland semi-final in the summer of 1992, the losing captain Peter Ford came into the Ulster men’s dressing room to offer, as he put it that day, “a word of advice”.

“We got to the final in 1989 and we haven’t been back since. Don’t believe that it is good enough just to be there. You might only get one chance at it ever. Make it pay.”

Brian McEniff, the Donegal manager, and his players were collectively stunned that they had broken through what had seemed like an impenetrable ceiling for them. Anthony Molloy, the captain, was holding court in the corridor, enjoying a Hamlet moment. Other Donegal men were floating around in delight.

It was the county’s fifth semi-final appearance and they had made desperately heavy weather of winning the game; arguably the strongest attacking unit the county had ever produced conspired to shoot 18 wides in a game when the anxiety of actually winning became increasingly evident.

“We looked a bit messy out there today,” McEniff conceded while beaming with delight. But there was something in the cold clarity of Ford’s words which must have registered. The message might have been considered a favour from one big, west of Ireland football county to another.

Watching the 1992 final must have been a strange sensation for Ford and the other senior Mayo players who had been reigniting the idea of Mayo as an All-Ireland winning entity since their breakthrough year in 1985.

That 1989 appearance revitalised the Mayo fervour that is still so evident today. But now, they had to watch as Donegal, the coldest of outsiders against Dublin, indeed made it pay by claiming their first senior All-Ireland in their maiden appearance. Mayo players and supporters wouldn’t be human had they not felt slightly envious at how simple it seemed to others.

The odd thing about that semi-final is that both counties were mutually convinced that they would win. They held one another in what might be considered benign contempt because they share so many similarities.

Mayo and Donegal has never been a rivalry, exactly, but they have a habit of getting in one another’s way. They are like two big-shouldered adolescent brothers who have outgrown the back seat but have no choice to sit through long family car journeys, jostling for more elbow room, impatient with one another, each convinced he deserves it more. That will again will inform the mood in Ballybofey for the latest crucial tussle on Sunday.

Mayo and Donegal have a curious relationship with the league. Mayo’s 11 titles places them behind only Kerry and Dublin on the all-time honours roll but they have only won the thing once since 1970. Donegal, meantime, fished just one Division One title out of the spring waters in 2007 – a win that came at Mayo’s expense.

Big deal

When that final ticked towards the final seconds of normal time still deadlocked, people quipped that the referee should play plenty of injury time to give both counties a fair chance of losing it.

The tag followed both teams in that period. Donegal had been smashed in the Ulster finals of 2004 and 2006 by the austere brilliance of the Armagh team of that era while Mayo had suffered two dismaying All-Ireland final defeats to Kerry in the same years. Both teams had surprised even themselves by making it to the league final and the game was settled with a rush of injury-time points from Donegal’s Rory Kavanagh, Eamonn McGee and Adrian Sweeney.

“Everyone was saying we didn’t have the bottle for winning finals,” said Brian Roper, the long-serving half forward who had persevered for almost a decade.

Donegal’s Jamie Brennan is tackled by Mayo’s Chris Barrett. Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho
Donegal’s Jamie Brennan is tackled by Mayo’s Chris Barrett. Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho

“Today we showed the bottle.”

The county didn’t try and disguise the fact that winning that title was a big deal to them at that moment. Supporters and players converged at the lower deck of the Hogan Stand. Neil Gallagher, the captain, accepted the cup while wearing a huge smile, a spectacular black eye and an improvised tourniquet for a head wound.

A photograph of Gallagher and a group of team-mates including Neil McGee and Colm McFadden heading off with the spoils of victory appeared on the front page of several newspapers, including this one, on the following Monday.

It isn’t hard to imagine that they were intent of honouring their prize with a thorough celebration. All three of those players would emerge as pillars in the team that would go on to the All-Ireland five years later. What is striking is the difference in their faces: in that league win they still carry baby-fat in their cheeks.

By 2012, all three bore the pinched look of hardened athletes. Donegal, coached by Brian McIver, had hoped that the win would give them a springboard into realising their championship ambitions. As it happened, they finally broke the Armagh spell thanks to a Hail-Mary goal from Kevin Cassidy struck from all of 50 metres. Then they went and lost by Monaghan to a point in the Ulster semi-final. For Mayo, too, that league final proved to be a troubling crossing point.

“I would never begrudge Donegal a victory – as long as it wasn’t against Mayo,” John O’Mahony, back for a second term in charge, said. “I think a victory would have stood to us just as well, particularly if we had closed it out with all the injuries.”

O’Mahony’s second period in charge held none of the incandescent memories of the 1988-91 period. But it is often overlooked that he brought through many of the players who would form the bodywork of the relentless machine assembled by James Horan.

It should be considered a singular piece of bad luck that even as Horan began to put in motion his drive and vision for the Mayo senior team, Donegal finally gave the vacant managerial post to Jim McGuinness. Neither Donegal nor Mayo were mapped after the 2010 season, when both Horan and McGuinness took charge. Both men breathed instant fire into their counties and, by extension, into the championship.

Provincial champions

Going into the 2012 seasons, both teams were respective provincial champions and had begun to internally explore their All-Ireland ambitions. Two games occurred early in that season which served as flares for the future intent of both counties.

In March, Mayo visited Donegal for a league match that resulted in a 0-17 to 1-7 hammering and served as a warning to Horan of everything Mayo could not afford to be.

“We were terrible in every aspect of the game,” he noted. “We got a bad beating and we need to react the right way to it. It could be a thousand little things. But when you put in a performance like that, something is not right.”

If Mayo are to avoid their first relegation in 20 years, they are going to have to do it without names like Keegan, O’Connor, Vaughan and Harrison

Mayo went on to the league final and, that May, Donegal and Mayo met for a challenge game to mark the opening of the Swinford pitch named after Robbie McCallion, the young Garda who had been tragically killed on duty in Letterkenny the previous year.

The occasion was warm; the match decidedly edgy. Donegal defender Paddy McGrath was injured in an early heavy tackle and by the second half both teams were whaling into each other with an intensity that announced their summer ambitions.

Both teams duly retained their provincial championships; Mayo decimated All-Ireland champions Dublin in the semi-final, Donegal put Tyrone, Kerry and Cork to the sword. And after everything, there they were, standing in one another’s way. Again, Donegal heeded Peter Ford’s old advice and made it pay.

Since that 2012 All-Ireland, Donegal-Mayo games have contained an edge; a thinly disguised mutual impatience at the other’s sense of superiority.

In 2013, Mayo didn’t spare the rod in overwhelming a Donegal team hobbled by injury in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final. The extent of that mauling left Donegal in a vulnerable place, open to the accusation that they had been flash-in-the-pan All-Ireland champions who wouldn’t be seen again.

That turned out not to be true as Donegal recovered to march to the 2014 All-Ireland final; it might have been Mayo’s perfect chance for atonement had they themselves not been caught by Kerry in that year’s epic semi-final.

Since then, engagements between the two have been thorny, most notably in the closing round of the league last year when Mayo teetered on the brink of relegation for most of the afternoon before rousing themselves with half an hour left and basically bullying and bossing their way to a vital win over a young and light Donegal team.

“If I had the physicality, I would have done the same,” Rory Gallagher remarked that afternoon. Tomorrow, the teams meet again.

Both need the same thing. If Mayo are to avoid their first relegation in 20 years, they are going to have to do it without names like Keegan, O’Connor, Vaughan and Harrison. If Donegal, also facing relegation, are to extend an unbeaten record in Ballybofey that dates back to 2010, they are going to have to do it against a Mayo team playing for their skins and, perhaps, their season.

Something’s got to give.

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