It’s still only the end of February but today’s hotly-contested League Division One encounter with Donegal in Ballybofey had more than a little hint of summer action about it. The sun shone, the hits were hard and frequent, the pace was frantic and the action was played out in front of a bumper crowd at MacCumhaill Park.
I wasn’t at this game, though I saw it all live on TG4 and so my pulse rate is only now starting to revert back to normal levels. From my seat on the sofa it looked like a cracking contest but, for the second match in a row, it was one that we could have won but failed to when the opportunity was there for us to do so.
Donegal had won their opening two matches at a canter but right from the throw-in today it was fairly obvious that they were going to get nothing easy from our lads. We hunted and harried them right from the off and enjoyed plenty of possession as we settled nicely into the game.
We’d made two changes before throw-in to our named team, with Kevin McLoughlin replacing Jason Doherty and Michael Hall starting instead of Mikey Sweeney. The resultant reshuffle saw Keith Higgins operating in their half, though sadly he didn’t make it to the break as he went off injured midway through the first half. Conor Loftus came on in place of the unfortunate Ballyhaunis man.
The first half was pretty much tit-for-tat on the scoreboard. We got the first two points, both Evan Regan frees, they got one back, then Aidan O’Shea boomed over our first from play. A Michael Murphy free for them was answered with an outside of the boot special from Shane Nally at the other end.
The Garrymore player saw yellow at the end of the first quarter for a nice, no-nonsense bit of cynicality as Donegal tried to break rapidly. Conor O’Shea had preceded him into the book a minute prior to this for a foul further up the field.
Two points without reply for them squared the match up but Robbie Hennelly thumped over a long-range free to put us back in front. Then a pointed free for them. Then Keegan (play) for us. McHugh (play) for them. Then Regan (free) for us. Murphy (’45) for them. All square again.
We took a one-point lead, however, into the break. Brendan Harrison – who put in another very strong performance today – found himself in possession near their posts and had the balls to back himself for the point.
It was a very positive opening half from us. Although the match was a finely-poised one we looked, if only marginally, the likelier winners at this stage.
Midway through the second half and the in-match odds on us completing the job wouldn’t have been too attractive. By now, Donegal’s discipline had gone to pieces and although Barry Cassidy was letting pretty much everything go for both sides in the pulling and dragging department, they were picking up a serious amount of cards. Neil Gallagher lasted about two minutes from his introduction off the bench to his banishment back from whence he’d come on a black card.
The home side had actually started the second half the brighter. They’d got the first point of the half and, after Evan Regan had equalised from a free, notched two on the spin to hit the front for the first time.
Then Evan Regan was fouled in the square and Diarmuid O’Connor did a passable impersonation of his big brother by calmly slotting the penalty home. He was made retake it (I’ve no idea why) but had no problem sticking it into the net a second time, even though the hirsute ‘keeper went the right way this time.
Now we were motoring. A Conor Loftus point from play stretched our lead to three and we looked well set to seal a first-ever League win on Donegal soil.
Ten minutes on, though, and we were chasing the game. Two frees cut our lead back to a single point and then, direct from a kick-out thumped aimlessly right down the middle by Robbie, Donegal got possession at the breakdown – the exchanges more akin now to rugby in the free-for-all zone around the middle third. They quickly carved through the middle of our rearguard – the first and only time they were allowed to do so – and the goal left us two adrift and flailing.
And flail we did. And, I felt, panic a bit too. We had plenty of chances to get the ball into good scoring positions but there was no real structure to how we attacked in those closing minutes, with one off-the-cuff move after another breaking down, our resolve breaking bit by bit as this happened.
A ’45 by Robbie got us back to one behind, Murphy from play put them two up and when they made it three from a free with five minutes to go there was no way back for us. Sub Seamus O’Shea got one back for us from play but Donegal had the smarts, and the black arts, to run the clock down efficiently and close out a two-point win.
TV can only show you so much but, on the basis of what I saw on the box, our best performances today came from Brendan Harrison, Shane Nally, Tom Parsons and Diarmuid O’Connor. Of the bunch, Diarmuid was the standout performer – like Cillian before him, he has progressed rapidly to become a real leader for us.
As losses go, today’s was a reasonably encouraging one. Our fitness levels have improved, players are returning – though, with Keith once more injured, it’s not all positive news on that front – and we’re obviously going to get better from here on.
Whether or not that’ll be enough, though, to save our place in the dog-eat-dog environment of Division One remains to be seen. We’ve now racked up three losses from three outings and at this juncture we look likely to join Down in Division Two next year. It’s too early, however, for defeatist talk on this front, although it’s fairly obvious now that we need to start winning matches and quickly. In reality, we have to be looking to win all four we’ve left to play between now and early April.
That sequence begins up in Clones next Sunday. If we’re to have any joy at all in this year’s League campaign, this one is now a match we simply have to win.
Mayo: Robbie Hennelly (0-2, a free and a ’45); Brendan Harrison (0-1), Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan (0-1), Colm Boyle, Shane Nally (0-1); Tom Parsons, Jason Gibbons; Diarmuid O’Connor (1-0, penalty), Aidan O’Shea (0-1), Conor O’Shea; Evan Regan (0-4, frees), Kevin McLoughlin, Michael Hall. Subs: Conor Loftus (0-1) for Higgins, Andy Moran for Regan, Donal Vaughan for Nally, Chris Barrett for Hall, Seamus O’Shea (0-1) for Gibbons, Jason Doherty for O’Connor.
Who was our MOTM against Donegal?
- Diarmuid O'Connor (45%, 164 Votes)
- Shane Nally (16%, 59 Votes)
- Brendan Harrison (7%, 25 Votes)
- Ger Cafferkey (6%, 20 Votes)
- Tom Parsons (5%, 19 Votes)
- Colm Boyle (5%, 17 Votes)
- Evan Regan (3%, 10 Votes)
- Robbie Hennelly (2%, 9 Votes)
- Conor Loftus (2%, 6 Votes)
- Jason Doherty (1%, 5 Votes)
- Jason Gibbons (1%, 5 Votes)
- Conor O'Shea (1%, 4 Votes)
- Chris Barrett (1%, 4 Votes)
- Aidan O'Shea (1%, 3 Votes)
- Kevin McLoughlin (1%, 3 Votes)
- Lee Keegan (1%, 2 Votes)
- Seamus O'Shea (1%, 2 Votes)
- Keith Higgins (1%, 2 Votes)
- Michael Hall (0%, 1 Votes)
- Andy Moran (0%, 1 Votes)
- Donal Vaughan (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 361