Wednesday 13 December 2017

Donegal set to edge it: Carney

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea in action against Donegal’s Paddy McBrearty in last
August’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final in Croke Park: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea in action against Donegal’s Paddy McBrearty in last August’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final in Croke Park: Piaras Ó Mídheach / SPORTSFILE

Dublin may be kings of the Hill, Kerry their most obvious rivals, but Donegal and Mayo have played almost as central a role in the race for Sam Maguire over the past five years.

This Sunday they will squabble over the destination of two league points in Ballybofey - the latest chapter in a very modern rivalry saga.

The outcome won't make or break either's season. But will it carry some summer resonance? RTÉ analyst Martin Carney, a man steeped in both counties, reckons so. "It won't be talked about much," says the Donegal native who became an adopted son of Mayo. "But whichever team wins will file it away - and maybe take it out of the cupboard later on in the year, if and when they meet again."

And that could well be in an All-Ireland semi-final.

Getting ahead of ourselves? Just a tad … but if Mayo win their sixth straight Connacht title and six consecutive quarter-final, and if Donegal negotiate the same front-door route, that will be the end-game.

Donegal versus Mayo - and a fourth Croke Park championship meeting in the space of five seasons.

"I've heard the talk down here already, that Mayo's path to an All-Ireland final this year would be the easier of the two," says Carney.

"Now, that's actually a bit presumptuous in so far as they'd be playing an Ulster team if they got to the semi-finals. And that team could well be Donegal because - I know it's early days - but already they're beginning to bring new players into the scene, the likes of Michael Carroll, Eoin McHugh and Ciarán Thompson.

"And they seem to have a renewed appetite this year, in contrast to the 'get me out of here' mentality that they had at the end of last year."

He is referencing their quarter-final against Mayo when Donegal - fresh, or more like fatigued, from losing to Monaghan at the end of a gruelling Ulster campaign - lost by eight points. Not quite the disaster that was their 16-point collapse to Mayo at the same stage in 2013.

And yet, as Carney reminds, "Donegal won the important one" - the All-Ireland final of 2012. Despite all their recent league and SFC collisions, this Donegal/Mayo rivalry has yet to turn X-rated.

"You would think there might have been a greater edge to it," says Carney. "But again, let's see how it develops this year! I've a sense that it could actually go up a notch or two."

More immediately, he fancies a home win this Sunday. "I think Mayo's league will be essentially in their last four matches. They're the games they will be in a position to target, realistically, for wins," says Carney, surmising that Mayo will look for another performance step-up on their battling defeat to Dublin but are still probably "a little bit behind the curve".

Match fitness is part of the equation, the absence of key players another, while Stephen Rochford's new management team is "trying to get them to adjust to a new style of football" which places a greater emphasis on foot-passing.


Overall, though, he questions some recent suggestions that Mayo are on a downward curve. He himself thought it would happen after the "devastation" of their semi-final replay defeat to Kerry in Limerick, back in 2014.

"I never imagined they would have come back within a kick of the ball against Dublin last year," he admits.

"But I wouldn't buy into it that they're gone past their sell-by-date. This year, obviously, is a very big year … and I don't think there's any great harm in them starting sluggishly.

"It will be a difficult enough one for them to actually do it at this stage. But to say that they're gone over the top? It's too early to say that."

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