I thoroughly enjoyed last Sunday’s game between Donegal and Mayo. It was going to be interesting to see how Donegal would perform without Glenswilly pair Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy.
Donegal played heroically and in the process gained an all important game with Cork in the National League semi-final this Sunday. What I had to admire about Donegal’s display was our tenacity and how we stood up to the cynicism of the Mayo team.
Sure, Mayo hit several wides. Most of their efforts were forced and their attempts came from long distance. Because of our defensive qualities and set up, Mayo had no other alternative than to try to kick long range scores. Feelings between the two teams would not be exactly cordial since we beat Mayo in the All-Ireland final in 2012.
We played Mayo in 2013 also in Castlebar which was a tempestuous affair. We lost that game but Mayo were smug in this victory. I know because I was part of the backroom team then. Neil McGee displaced his kneecap that day. I went to the Mayo dressing room after the final whistle to request medical assistance. I was looking for a set of crutches. To my dismay I was abruptly told where to go.
For all their huffing and puffing last Sunday, Mayo were unable to break Donegal’s resolve. The game told a lot about the two teams. Here we were in Mayo’s backyard minus two of our best players and our backs against the wall.
Rory Gallagher has to be very pleased with his team’s character. The fight within our players was an inspiration to experience. Granted Mayo were without their star forward Cillian O’Connor. One man was hardly going to make a world of difference on the day though particularly when we see how well our defence is performing.
Donegal scored a goal that was as good as we have scored in ages. It was top drawer. The ball was played at pace from defence to attack with Paddy McBrearty firing into the roof of the net like a bullet. Mayo resorted to persistent and rugby-like fouling which cost them dearly. Three black cards tell their own story.
I liked Donegal’s persistence and eagerness to get into attack at every opportunity. Mayo had a one point lead with minutes remaining and decided to stop Donegal at all costs. Their approach was negative and all too cumbersome. They lacked the desire and drive to close out the game. Attack is always the best means of defence. Donegal’s approach was so much different. And this was the stand out factor which separated these two teams.
Going forward, Donegal have a lot to be optimistic about. Having played all of the top teams in the country at this stage we know that we are well capable of beating any of them. Cork will pose a different type of challenge on Sunday. I rate Cork as one of the top three teams in the country after Donegal and Dublin. They have a very good team and have developed a style of football not dissimilar from our own.
The expanse of Croke Park will provide a great test for both teams. Donegal and Cork are two teams that like to play football. It should be an absorbing contest. This is an extra game which is invaluable for both teams as the championship approaches. If we were not in this position we would be scouring the country looking for challenge games as a means of preparation for the summer. As it is, we have the chance to get to a league final against either Dublin or Monaghan.
Titles are won and lost in Croke Park and it is fantastic to get into this arena so early in the season. When a team reaches a semi-final of any competition, that team wants to win even if it is deemed a secondary title. And as the all important championship approaches, teams are beginning to crank up their training and sharpen their focus. The standard in Donegal senior football set in recent years has been high.
Our lads are no strangers to Croke Park and are well capable of meeting even greater standards. I know that our players have every confidence in their own abilities and the defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland final last year does not sit well with them. Dublin again seems to be the team to beat. They will have learned a massive lesson from last year’s All-Ireland championship semi final defeat to Donegal.
There’s no sure thing in sport and especially in Gaelic football. I expect Dublin to beat Monaghan in the other league semi-final this Sunday. I also feel that we will beat Cork because we have recovered the much needed zeal to succeed. A Dublin and Donegal league final would be a perfect outcome. This will give us the opportunity to sew another seed of doubt in this Dublin outfit.
The journey has begun.