The late, great, Ivan Neill of the Western People once famously jumbled his metaphors many years ago in his match report of a narrow Mayo loss at Croke Park. The year was 1986 and the match was the league semi-final against Monaghan where we went under by a point, despite having a surfeit of good possession. Ivan was not impressed and he fumed that if such a performance were to be repeated, Mayo were destined to be “always the bride and never the groom”. Twenty-one years on, we are, it would seem, still awaiting the necessary sex-change operation.
We just don’t do national finals all that well, do we? Yesterday, we squared up to a county with its own cripplingly negative record at failing at the final hurdle and the result – for us at least – was depressingly familiar. Somehow, they were able to take the field in a confident manner and face down their demons with a purposeful and direct display of football that worked well given the treacherous underfoot conditions. Somehow, we just weren’t able to do this: we made countless errors, took so many wrong options and rarely looked like posing a serious threat when we went forward.
That said, we could, and perhaps should, have won yesterday. We certainly won enough possession but our problem – one that persisted right through the seventy minutes – was that we couldn’t hold onto it. Time after time after time the ball was fumbled, dropped or knocked out of the arms of a Mayo player in possession and, once Donegal had it, they made good use of it, channelling it forward quickly and directly. They took their scores smartly enough too so that we were chasing the game right from the start.
Last weekend’s soporific encounter with Galway clearly wasn’t for real. However, it was obvious, even before the throw-in, that yesterday’s match certainly was, as this clip of the pre-match parade shows:
(Aside on the videos: I’ve got far fewer of this match compared to last week’s. This time all I’ve got are the pointed frees. As I predicted in yesterday’s post, it just wasn’t possible to stay sufficiently detached to keep the camera rolling when the attacks from play were unfolding. I’ve included two points from frees in this post and the rest are on the YouTube channel).
There were two different types of surprises before the throw-in, one related to team selections, the second to do with the weather. Donegal started with Brendan Devenney - whom they had ruled out with injury earlier in the week - at full-forward, with Com McFadden switching back to his normal right-corner place. Our change was perhaps more surprising, with Kevin O’Neill’s corner-forward position being taken by James Nallen but the Crossmolina veteran started at midfield, with Pat Harte switching to the half-forwards. Then there was the weather, with the sunshine we’d enjoyed on the stroll down to Croker giving way to sheets of rain, the first we’d seen in daylight for over a month, and it was immediately obvious that the already dreadful-looking surface was going to be even more slippy underfoot following this pre-match dousing.
We needed a good start, if nothing else to avoid falling into the kind of fire-fighting situations that we’d allowed ourselves to become enveloped in during all of our recent matches. A good opening spell would also have sown seeds of doubt in the minds of the Donegal lads and allowed us to demonstrate that, whatever their league form, we were the team with the greater experience at this level. But we simply didn’t do it: they won all those crucial opening exchanges and within ten minutes we were three points down and already flailing badly.
Donegal’s decision to spring the still-injured Devenney worked perfectly. He didn’t see out the first half but had made a sufficient contribution to Donegal’s attacking efforts at that stage to more than justify the gamble of starting him. Our repeated fumbling of the ball out around the middle gifted them plenty of possession and it was ball that they put to good effect, playing it in quickly either through the middle to Roper or out the wing to McFadden. Roper skinned Gardiner repeatedly with McFadden also often quicker to the ball than O’Malley and those early four points that Donegal got were almost embarrassingly easy scores to concede.
James Kilcullen, marking Michael Hegarty, found himself pulled way out the field where, although he managed to happen on a good bit of ball, he had all the look of a lost soul. At one point, he got possession far enough up to shoot but ballooned it predictably wide. He was taken off soon after, with only 19 minutes gone on the clock, his orthodox full-back skills strangely not needed against big, direct forwards. His replacement, Aidan Higgins, proceeded to have a productive enough day thereafter.
Eventually, we began to do something with all the possession we had – Mort scoring a point from play, then Harte smacking over a good score from well out, then frees from Mort and this one from Dillon:
Suddenly, it seemed, we were back in it. We went in at the break two points adrift – seven to five – but we’d played poorly and, on the evidence of previous matches, we could reasonably expect a better performance in the second half. It looked then like we might nick it, bearing in mind how we’d come back to steal results so often in the campaign to date. Strangely, our thoughts weren’t too focused at that stage on our earlier meeting with them back in February up in Ballybofey when we’d been sunk by three late points.
The second half opened much like the first period ended, with us continuing to win ball around the middle - where Heaney and the old warhorse Nallen produced a stirring performance together - but not seeming to know what to do with it once we had it. Donegal went three ahead just after the restart, we pulled it back to one, they stretched it back to three. Although Donegal were beginning to look a bit vulnerable, with their wide count starting to creep up, we didn’t look like we had sufficient nous to exploit the gaps that were opening up.
Still, all was not lost. Kevin O’Neill had come on to replace the anonymous Michael Conroy and the ball coming into the forwards started to look more purposeful. Donegal also started to foul in areas well within Mort’s range and he kicked four similar scores to haul us level, the last one of which was this one from away out on the right:
This was it, we thought, if the lads are reading the script, we’re now going to kick for home. Immediately after that score, Mort was clearly fouled twenty yards out straight in front of the posts but the ref waved play on. That would have put us ahead for the first time but instead Donegal nicked the lead once more, with a point from the diminutive McMenamin, and again we were back chasing the game.
Then came the two incidents that turned the game against us. First, Andy Moran found himself clean through with only the goalie to beat but he blazed the ball over the bar. Andy’s anguished face immediately flashed up on the big screen and he knew, as we did as well, that we’d just missed the best opportunity of the day, one that would have put us two up with ten minutes to play. Then, soon after, Dillon missed an eminently scoreable free from out on the left and, once more, we had failed to nab the lead. In the event, we never got our noses in front.
A bad injury to Ciaran Bonner – following which it took an eternity to cart him off the pitch – resulted in several minutes break in play and so when the seventy minutes were up with the teams all square there were still eight additional minutes in which to decide the contest. Here the match was truly up for grabs but, in a microcosm of the events of the previous 70 minutes, both of us had chances but it was Donegal who took theirs.
Whatever possession we did get was fumbled away in what appeared to be a panic-stricken manner, with all our attempted assaults on the Donegal goal breaking down in a clueless fashion. Donegal, in contrast, got three opportunities and they nailed all three spectacularly, with superb points from Gallagher, McGee and, finally, an exquisite long-range effort from former All-Star Adrian Sweeney to seal victory and to land their first ever NFL title.
Donegal undoubtedly deserved the win, both on the day and over the course of the league campaign since the start of February, where they were clearly the form team in this year’s NFL. It would be difficult to begrudge them their win and few Mayo supporters would have done so. It would, perhaps, have been nicer to see a bit more graciousness amongst their followers: their incessant booing and catcalling prior to Mort’s frees was to this (perhaps old-fashioned) observer more than a little distasteful. Still, they were worthy winners and, sitting on our own eleven NFL titles, we could hardly bemoan the fact that they’d won one of their own.
Where does this latest final defeat leave us? As we made our way out of Croker, we muttered darkly to ourselves that we’d win no All-Ireland this year. The comment from Kevin McStay in his Mayo News column earlier in the week, to the effect that we have plenty of committed, industrious players but no game-winning ones, seemed, in those dark moments at least, to be particularly apt.
But let’s remember that it’s only April, we’ve had a great run through a tough league campaign and our inability to hold onto the ball in the skating rink conditions of Croke Park was the main reason we lost yesterday. We didn’t take a pasting and overall we’ve emerged from the league campaign in a far better frame of mind than the sorry state we were in prior to it beginning. And don’t forget that we got as far as we did despite the catalogue of injuries we’ve suffered. Not everyone will be back for the Summer – we can’t reasonably expect to see Ciaran Mac or Ronan McGarritty in the colours this year - but others, such as David Brady, Trevor Mortimor and Kenneth O’Malley, almost certainly will be there, along with a few of the U21s. So it’s not all doom and gloom, far from it.
It’s also the case that yesterday’s defeat wasn’t the stuff of nightmares. It would have been better, sure, had we won but I don’t think you’d have seen the same wild scenes of jubilation that Donegal’s followers exhibited had we done so either. We would have derived some satisfaction from it but we’d soon have forgotten it as well, with all thoughts quickly turning to the crunch clash with Galway. The result might, of course, have cost Johnno a few votes in the forthcoming election but with the Galway showdown now certain to take place ahead of polling day, he has ample opportunity to win them all back again before then.