There was no one saying it afterwards, players or management, but Saturday’s quarter final proved a game too far for Donegal.
The hard slog of five tough games and the bumps and bruises picked up along the way eventually caught up and took their toll.
And if all that was not bad enough, there was also the unfair seven day turnaround from the previous game, an flattering 3-12 to 0-11 victory over Galway in last Saturday’s Qualifier.
In the end Donegal looked battle weary in this quarter final. There had been ominous signs the week before against the Tribesmen, especially in the second quarter when Donegal’s play was lateral and lethargic.
Mayo may not be world beaters but they are a seasoned top tier outfit and a recognised top four team.
The Connacht champions got their match-ups and tactics spot on. Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty were seen to carry the main threat. And apart from skipper Murphy, who scored 0-8 of Donegal’s total, all the others were successfully targeted and closed down. Patrick McBrearty and Colm McFadden were kept scoreless. Neil Gallagher had one of his quietest outings in a Donegal shirt in years and Ryan McHugh was but a pale shadow of the player who did so well in the previous five games in the campaign.
Both sides were pretty cagey in the opening minutes as they sussed each other out with Donal Vaughan for Mayo and Michael Murphy - from a 44 metre free - and Frank McGlynn, posting early wides.
Murphy kicked the game’s opening score just inside five minutes which was quickly cancelled out by Lee Keegan at the other end after Donegal were turned over and hit on the break.
Keegan knocked over a carbon copy score two minutes for a 0-2 to 0-1 Mayo lead. It was all square again on ten minutes courtesy of Michael Murphy - who scored all but one of Donegal’s first half points.
With Mayo playing with more of a spring in their step, the Connacht champions forged two ahead for the first time, courtesy of patient approach play and points from Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty.
But Christy Toye polished off a good move with a fine score on 18 minutes before Murphy, shortly after, tied up the game on 0-4 each when he converted a ‘45.
Cillian O’Connor with a beautiful point - his only one from play - from out on the Cusack Stand side restored Mayo’s two point advantage.
And the men in green and red were three up for the first time when Kevin McLaughlin, on the stroke of the half hour, kicked Mayo’s seventh of the afternoon.
But two late Murphy conversions, the last of them on 35 minutes, had the margin back to one again, 0-7 to 0-6. Donegal were still somehow very much in the game.
All that changed in the second minute of injury time when Aidan O’Shea sunk the dagger for Mayo’s first goal. The big full-forward took a long delivery from his bother Seamus on the edge of the small rectangle. Despite being double-marked by Neil McGee and Mark McHugh, O’Shea won clean possession, turned and tucked the ball wide of Paul Durcan for a 1-7 to 0-6 half-time lead.
It was a hammer blow for Donegal and it got worse when three and a half minutes into the second half, Lee Keegan struck for goal number two and a 2-7 to 0-6 lead.
Keegan, from about 13 metres, found the top corner of Durcan’s net with a looping shot that had all the appearances of an attempted point.
And as the floodlights went on, Cillan O’Connor converted from close range. It gave his team an eight point lead and even with half an hour still to play, Donegal were in big bother.
Michael Murphy added three more frees to his tally and second half replacements Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone split the posts. But these were only consolation scores.
Mayo, who lost Kevin Keane in the closing seconds to a straight red card two minutes after entering the game, cruised to a comfortable and thoroughly deserved win to set-up a semi-final showdown with Dublin.
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; R McHugh, K. Lacey, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, H McFadden; C Toye (0-1), O MacNiallais, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy (0-8, 5f, 1 45), C McFadden. Subs: M McElhinney for C Toye (h/t); A Thompson (0-1) for N McGee (37, inj); L Mcloone (0-1) for O MacNiallais (39).
Mayo: D Clarke; G Cafferkey, D Vaughan, K Higgins (0-1); L Keegan (1-2), T Cunniffe, C Boyle; S O’Shea, T Parsons; D O’Connor, A O’Shea (1-0), K McLaughlin (0-2); B Moran, C O’Connor (0-3,2f), J Doherty (0-4). Subs: C Barrett for T Cunniffe (33,inj); R Hennelly for D Clarke (h/t, inj); P Durcan for D Vaughan (Black card, 54); A Freeman (0-1) for S O’Shea (64);
Referee: D. Gough (Meath)