Monday 11 December 2017

Demolition job

Mayo the new favourites for Sam after destroying Donegal

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea in action against Michael Murphy. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea in action against Michael Murphy. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

ONLY if they bring Sam Maguire back across the Shannon in seven weeks' time will Mayo be able to beat yesterday's Croke Park performance from the gods.

As good as it gets? Without the validation of the chalice that has eluded and mocked Mayo footballers down through the generations, all the way back to '51, it certainly was.

This observer has been a ringside observer of every epic Mayo All-Ireland failure, all six of them, dating back to 1989, and I can safely declare that I have never witnessed anything like this – from them – in their so-called crucible of nightmares.

A display so brimming with intensity from the throw-in; so aggressive (in all the right ways); so completely dominant at the kickout (Liam McHale eat your heart out, Aidan O'Shea is the newly-crowned lord of the skies); so full of inventive movement; so democratic in their scoreboard incisions (who needs a marquee forward when you've got 13 different scorers?); so utterly, utterly ruthless when it mattered.

The only shame, from a Mayo perspective, is that it happened in a quarter-final and they must now deal with the inevitable overload of hype and expectation that will follow this 16-point demolition of crestfallen Donegal.

But that's a minor caveat and one that James Horan will happily embrace in the three-week countdown to their semi-final date with Tyrone.

They are now universally acclaimed by the bookies as All-Ireland favourites, a mantle previously held by Dublin. The naysayers will doubtless quibble that it gets far tougher from here on in. And maybe it will ... and yet winning Connacht by a cumulative margin of 45 points didn't exactly shortchange an allegedly undercooked Mayo for this All-Ireland final rematch.

That said, while the green-and-red were gloriously good, the fallen holders were truly horrid. The endgame may have been coming for weeks but no one could have predicted this.

"Who's first?" asked Jim McGuinness, by way of light-hearted relief, when he entered the media auditorium to face his post-match Spanish inquisition.

This wasn't a record championship defeat for Donegal or even a record losing margin for a defending champion (Dublin lost to Kerry by one point more, 17, in the 1978 final) but in many ways it probably felt worse. And in statistical reality, it actually could have been.

After 55 minutes, when Chris Barrett sallied forward from corner-back to land a swashbuckling outside-of-the-boot point that summed up Mayo's heavenly day, the margin had extended to a 22-point chasm – 4-15 to 0-5.

Even at that point, the margin could conceivably have extended beyond the 30-point mark because three more presentable Mayo goal chances had come to nought.

During a first-half masterclass that ended 2-10 to 0-4 for the rampant Connacht men, Cillian O'Connor had a soccer-style effort cleared off his line by Mark McHugh while Cathal Carolan had seen a similar ground shot strike the butt of an upright, Kevin McLoughlin miscuing horribly wide on the rebound.



Then, during the third quarter, another goal chance for Lee Keegan was saved by the persistently exposed Paul Durcan as Donegal's famed defensive system went into calamitous total shutdown.

But rather than dwell on these Mayo misses, far better to savour the finest first-half display by a team in Croke Park since ... who knows?

The peerless Aidan O'Shea was the catalyst, setting the midfield agenda with a high-fielding display for the ages. He brushed aside the potential impediment of an early yellow card to obliterate Donegal's midfield, off both keeper's restarts.

By the final whistle, we had counted nine kickout claims by the Breaffy powerhouse, eight won cleanly. The only incongruous note was his 70th-minute dismissal for a second yellow card ... after a brief shocked hush from the Mayo masses, they rose to acclaim their No 8 as he bid his untimely exit.

By then, Donegal were already down to 14 men but there was no sympathy for Eamonn McGee after his blatant 52nd-minute stamp on a prone Enda Varley.

In mitigation, McGee's own head was probably in a spin after his direct opponent, Cillian O'Connor, had plundered his second hat-trick in consecutive SFC outings – that, too, is surely a first? His goals came after five minutes, 40 (teed up on a plate by Donal Vaughan) and 45 (on the rebound, after Durcan had denied Andy Moran).

Under pressure near his endline, McGee coughed up possession for the first goal – set up by McLoughlin and finished with aplomb by O'Connor.

When Vaughan raced onto a Keith Higgins handpass over the top, leaving Durcan stranded in the process, Mayo had two goals inside 13 minutes. It was like a mirror-image of last year's final, only now with Donegal on the receiving end of the early blitzkrieg.

A late Colm McFadden goal was little consolation for McGuinness who will analyse what went wrong and, over the next "two or three weeks", decide on his own future.

"The short version is we met a very hungry team," he reflected, "with a mission of trying to win the All-Ireland. We had that last year in our play and everything that we did – and Mayo have it now."

Last word to the architect of Donegal's downfall. "Delighted to play like that in an important game," said James Horan.

"All the stuff that we've worked on – our skills, our tackling, our movement and a lot of the basics of the game that we've put a lot of effort into this year – came through today."

And how!

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