Donegal are now fighting for their Allianz Football League Division One lives following a four point defeat at the hands of Connacht champions Mayo in Elvery Sports McHale Park in Castlebar.
In a bitterly cold day borrowed from a Siberian winter, the Westerners got a measure of compensation for last September’s All-Ireland final defeat by Donegal. But even more importantly the win also raised them to four points in the Division One table alongside Donegal and Kerry and kept their top flight status hopes alive going into to their last game away to Cork.
The defeat also means that Donegal, too, have to take something from their final game against Dublin in two weeks in Ballybofey. However if Kerry lose to Tyrone in Omagh, also on the last day, could possibly see Donegal survive even if they lose to Dublin.
Overall, this was a poor performance from the All-Ireland champions who only played in fits and starts and looked a good bit behind Mayo in terms of fitness and sharpness.
Mayo dominated for long periods and while Mickey Conroy’s goal was the game’s decisive score, in terms of possession and control of the game, in truth Mayo should have won with even more to spare.
In a highly tactical ecounter, Mayo played Donegal at their own game by adopting a packed defence and breaking from the back at pace and once they doubled up on Michael Murphy, they were always in control.
Donegal lost Anthony Thompson to a second yellow with 15 minutes remaining but more worryingly they also lost Neil McGee, to a nasty knee injury, ten minutes into the second period.
Mayo also finished the game with 14 players when Jason Doherty was shown a second yellow by Marty Duffy five minutes from full-time.
Donegal, who fielded 14 of the All-Ireland team – the injured Karl Lacey the only absentee - started well and despite playing into a biting cold wind blowing down McHale Park, they hit four points to Mayo’s one in the opening 11 minutes.
But worryingly they did not score again for the remainder of the half as Mayo took a grip around midfield and Donegal’s indiscipline in the tackle allowed Mayo back into the game.
And it was the Westerners who led at half-time, 0-6 to 0-4, with four of their six points coming from close-in frees; three of them off the boot of Cillian O’Connor and one from Kevin McLaughlin, who also split the posts from play while O’Connor also raised a white flag from play.
Michael Murphy (2) and Colm McFadden (2) were the Donegal scorers with one each from placed balls.
Donegal made changes at the break with U-21s Ryan McHugh and Marty O’Reilly introduced for Leo McLoone and Ryan Bradley and they added a bit of sparkle as they got the second half off to a promising start.
O’Reilly, with his first touch, stabbed over from close range as he came in at angle on 37 minutes. And the interval Mayo advantage was wiped out two minutes later when McFadden knocked over after Rory Kavanagh was denied a half goal chance.
With the sides level and the game in the fire O’Connor and Rory Kavanagh traded scores, Kavanagh’s effort a delightful effort on the run after combining with Anthony Thompson on the left side of the park.
And then came the crucial goal, which began with Marty O’Reilly losing control and turned over in front of the Mayo posts and the the ball was worked down the field by Keith Higgins and Lee Keegan.
Higgins broke clear and played the ball in front of Michael Conroy, coming in at an angle. He elected to hit the ball first time and with Paul Durcan stranded the ball went in off Durcan’s right hand upright.
On a day defences were on top a goal was always going to be a big score and that is how Conroy’s 46th minute strike turned out.
While Ryan McHugh and Murphy both clawed the margin back to two points twice in the closing quarter hour, Mayo always had the cushion.
McHugh’s strike on 50 minutes after good work by O’Reilly was cancelled out by a fine strike from the raiding Colm Boyle.
And after Murphy, on 62 minutes, kept the door ajar once again, second half substitute Enda Varley finally closed the door with two late points to seal the wins and the much sought after two points by the Westerners.
Donegal: Paul Durcan; Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee, Declan Walsh; Anthony Thompson, Eamon McGee, Frank McGlynn; Neil Gallagher, Rory Kavanagh (0-1); Mark McHugh, Leo McLoone, Ryan Bradley, Colm McFadden (0-3,1f), Michael Murphy (0-3,2f), Patrick McBrearty. Subs: Ross Wherity for D Walsh (22); Ryan McHugh (0-1) for R. Bradley and Marty O’Reilly (0-1) for L. McLoone (h/t); Ryan Bradley for N.McGee (45 ,inj); Martin McElhinney for R Wherity (59).
Mayo: David Clarke; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Colm Boyle; Lee Keegan, Tom Cuniffee, Colm Boyle (0-1); Barry Moran, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2,1f), Aidan O’Shea, Cathal Carolan; Cillian O’Connor (0-5,4f), Jason Doherty, Michael Conroy (1-0). Subs: Ritchie Feeney for C. O’Connor (53); Donal Vaughan for K Higgins (58 inj); Enda Varley (0-2) for M. Conroy ( 61); Brian Gallagher for S. O’Shea (63); Alan Freeman for C.Carolan (69).
Referee: Marty Duffy (Sligo)
Man of the match
Mayo midfielder Barry Moran put in a storming second half performance to pick up the award on a day that the Mayo defence played very well. Mark McHugh worked hard throughout; Rory Kavanagh despite conceding a lot of height and power to the Mayo midfield tried hard while Michael Murphy looked dangerous until double marked while Ryan McHugh and Marty O’Reilly added a spark in the second half.
Mayo’s goal on 46 minutes was the game’s defining score and really knocked Donegal back having twice drawn level in the early minutes of the second half. The goal came after Marty O’Reilly was turned over 20 metres from the Mayo posts and Keith Higgins provided the final ball for Michael Conroy.
Marty Duffy awarded 55 frees, 30 Mayo and 25 to Donegal and flashed 12 yellows; six each with Donegal’s Anthony Thompson and Mayo’s Jason Doherty both receiving red card for second yellow offences.
In fairness to the Sligo official while one or two of the yellows may have been harsh the bulk of them were merited.