Donegal left it so late to seal a place in the semi-finals of the Allianz League Division One they would’ve heard their name being called on the tannoy in the departures lounge.
A point in the fourth minute of injury time from Stephen Griffin secured the draw that was enough for Donegal to reach the last four at their hosts’ expense. It’s the first time the county has made the knock-outs since 2007. Cork, who Donegal defeated 0-12 to 1-8 last month in Ballyshannon, are Sunday’s opponents at Croke Park.
Back in Jim McGuinness’s first match at the helm against Sligo in February 2011, it was Griffin who salvaged a 2-11 to 1-14 draw for Donegal. That result was often referred to as one that gave the regime traction. Rory Gallagher was number two in those days and now as manager would’ve been content with the spirit shown by his team yesterday.
Without a realistic threat of relegation, there was no sense of inhibition from either side in an open and entertaining first half at Elvery’s MacHale Park in Castlebar yesterday. In the second, Mayo were dominant but nine wides meant there wasn’t clear daylight between the teams before Griffin, making his first appearance since Monaghan visited Ballybofey in the 2013 Dr McKenna Cup, struck at the bitter end.
Gallagher had said in the lead-up to the fixture that he sought to put an end to what he termed as “the away-day hoodoo”. Having not won on the road in the top flight since 2009, when Joe Joe Doherty’s team won 0-15 to 1-7 at Westmeath’s Cusack Park in Mullingar, at least that losing 10-match record was put to a halt.
A marvellous goal by Patrick McBrearty was the stand-out moment of the first half. The 21-year-old rightly got the back-pats for piercing a shot above Kenneth O’Malley in the Mayo goal. But the Kilcar forward was just the final link in the chain in what was an excellently constructed move.
Michael Boyle’s crisp kick-out was gathered cleanly in space by Martin McElhinney, who made his routine turn and beeline for goal. The St Michael’s midfielder linked with his clubmate Christy Toye. With yellow jerseys streaming from their defensive base, Frank McGlynn took up the possession and having played a neat give-and-go with Martin O’Reilly, fed McBrearty to his left and his finish pierced right into the postage stamp top corner.
That made the score 1-5 to 0-4 for the Ulster champions, who were facing Mayo for the first time since their 4-17 to 1-10 mauling in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final. Odhran MacNiallais wasn’t privy to the painful memories of that particular afternoon but yesterday the Gweedore native was in splendid form, kicking tree first half points - the first of which was landed after only 19 seconds.
At the other end, Mayo, who were 0-2 to 0-0 down following 62 seconds after McElhinney had doubled Donegal’s advantage, clawed their way back into the contest with four successive points. Jason Doherty posted two of those, with the hugely influential Barry Moran and Kevin McLoughlin also on the mark.
And after McBrearty’s goal, the four-in-a-row Connacht champions finished the half strongly, with Moran, Donal Vaughan and Aidan O’Shea finding their range. By the break, Donegal held the slenderest of advantages, 1-5 to 0-7 ahead.
Without the suspended Michael Murphy, Donegal, for spells in the second half, looked to be missing the apex of their attack. Mayo were the dominant team in the third quarter and but for poor shooting would’ve been farther ahead than the 0-11 to 1-6 they were by the hour-mark. Moran, with his third of the afternoon, pointed with Diarmuid O’Connor, Mikey Conroy and McLoughlin also scoring.
Colm McFadden scored Donegal’s only point of that spell but with Hugh McFadden black-carded for a tug on Conroy, Toye having been replaced and Neil Gallagher not featuring, there was a lack of physicality in the middle third. Only McBrearty, who was working manfully on breadcrumbs for scraps, kept Donegal ticking over with a pair of fine points. He was also out of luck when he saw a goal disallowed on 43 minutes for a push
Three minutes from time, McLoughlin, who was responsible for three of those aforementioned wides, had his cue chalked as he pointed to edge Mayo in front.
A frantic finish saw Vaughan dismissed for adding a black card to his earlier yellow and then Mayo tried to kill the game when O’Connor was black-carded for rugby tackling Paddy McGrath. With Donegal pushing forward, a breakaway saw Patrick Durcan shoot straight at Boyle when a point would’ve sealed the points. That, though, was only the prelude to Griffin’s late leveller.
Mayo: Kenneth O’Malley; Brendan Harrison, Kevin Keane, Keith Higgans; Lee Keegan, Com Boyle, Donal Vaughan (0-1); Barry Moran (0-3), Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-3, 1f), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Jason Doherty (0-2, 2f); Mark Ronaldson, Danny Kirby, Diarmaid O’Connor (0-1). Subs: Mikey Conroy (0-1) for Ronaldon (half-time), Stephen Coen for Harrison (46), Andy Moran for Kirby (55), Patrick Durcan for Boyle (65), Neil Douglas for McLoughlin (70), Michael Hall for O’Connor (70 black card)
Donegal: Michael Boyle; Neil McGee, Eamonn Doherty, Paddy McGrath; Eamon McGee; Karl Lacey, Ryan McHugh; Odhran MacNiallais (0-3), Hugh McFadden; Martin McElhinney (0-1), Christy Toye; Martin O’Reilly, Frank McGlynn; Colm McFadden (0-1), Patrick McBrearty (1-3), Martin O’Reilly. Subs: Anthony Thompson and Ciaran McGinley for Doherty and Toye (43), Mark McHugh for H McFadden (48 black card), Stephen Griffin (0-1) for McGinley (59)
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).