By John O’Hara
On Saturday evening at 6 p.m. Donegal will do battle with Mayo for the third time in four years. The last two battles have been evenly split, but Donegal’s win in 2012 yielded the Sam Maguire, while Mayo have been on fruitless search for the promised land for the past 54 years. The second encounter saw Mayo rip apart the reigning champions in the quarter-final of 2013, so Saturday’s duel promises to be a mouth-watering clash, which could ignite this lacklustre championship campaign.
The bookies will be siding heavily with Mayo, given their rout of Sligo in uncompromising fashion in the provincial final, but some analysts are pointing to the fact that Mayo have yet to be tested in their two games so far in this championship. Donegal on the other hand are facing into their sixth competitive championship match, after coming through the gruelling Ulster Championship as runners up to Monaghan. On Saturday, we will find out which is the bigger advantage, being tested regularly or being fresh for battle. The bookies are going with the latter, but Donegal supporters will be hoping that the former wins out.
Mayo’s biggest threat this year has been the unstoppable Aidan O’Shea, who has relished his transformation to a free-scoring full forward. His destruction of the Sligo defence was at times, breath-taking but the naivety of the Sligo defence will not be replicated on Saturday. If fit, Eamon McGee will be the man given the task of marshalling the big Breaffy man and it is a task that he will need to perform, if Donegal are to come out on top. One criticism of O’Shea at full-forward is that he tries to steam-roll through defences, which he may find difficult against Donegal, who will have two sweepers deployed in around the scoring zone.
Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran, who will join O’Shea in the full forward line will offer significant threats of their own, but Rory Gallagher will be hopeful that Neil McGee and Paddy McGrath can contain the duo. Mayo’s forwards have yet to face the type of defensive intensity that Donegal will be looking to bring on Saturday.
Midfield is probably the biggest concern for Donegal, with Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons both on form this season. Gallagher opted not to start Martin McElhinney against Galway, with reports after the match indicating that he had not trained in the week leading up to the game. The introduction of the St Michael’s man and the switch of Murphy to full-forward sparked the catalyst for Donegal’s second half performance and Rory Gallagher will be hopeful that he can start McElhinney at midfield, who played well after his introduction. He does, however, need to reassess his shot selection, with some poor efforts on Saturday, that he should not have been taking on. Neil Gallagher, who continues to get better with age, will need to be at the top of his game to combat the threat of the older O’Shea brother, who was also rampant against Sligo.
Eamon Doherty, who struggled against Galway will probably lose his place to either the returning Karl Lacey or to Anthony Thompson, who showed well in the second half, with his trademark forays into opposition territory, unnoticed. Frank McGlynn, arguably Donegal’s most consistent performer this year will be pivotal to Donegal’s transition from defence to attack and if he can find his rhythm, he could exploit the attacking nature of this Mayo side. Ryan McHugh had his performance of the championship so far against Galway and his running will be key to Donegal’s quick counter-attacking style.
The half-forward line is Donegal’s most changeable, with Hugh McFadden, Martin O’Reilly, Mark McHugh, Odhran MacNiallis, Christy Toye and Colm McFadden all drifting in and out of those positions. MacNiallis, who won man of the match last weekend, with some classy scores may not get the same time and space against Mayo and may need to be prepared for a more physical encounter. Colm McFadden was simply superb last week and proved many of the doubters wrong with his finest game in a Donegal jersey since the 2012 final. His new role as the team’s playmaker-in-chief suits the aging Creeslough man, whose laser like left foot set up all three Donegal goals last weekend. Leo McLoone, who has re-joined the panel may find himself with a bigger role on Saturday, as Donegal try to increase their physicality to give them an extra edge in attack, something that was missing against Monaghan in the Ulster Final. Christy Toye will, more than likely, play the role of the impact sub, which he did to perfection on Saturday and the strength from the bench will be key as the match unfolds. Gallagher could decide to throw McLoone into battle from the start and sacrifice O’Reilly, utilising the strength of the Glenties’ captain.
The news on the injury front looks promising, but following last week’s bizarre saga over the fitness of Michael Murphy, it is not clear what it truth and what is mind games, but if Donegal have a fit Lacey and Eamon McGee, this tie will be a lot tighter than some people are predicting.
And to the full-forward line, where we could see Murphy and McBrearty playing as the inside two from the beginning of the game, which should give the Mayo full back line a few sleepless nights. If both players are operating at full throttle, they will be a handful for Keith Higgins and co. Murphy’s cameo at full-forward last week epitomised why he is seen as one of the game’s greatest players, with a sublime catch in mid-air, before splitting the posts with ease, before he turned to provider, knocking the ball into the path of Ryan McHugh, whose goal sealed the win for Donegal.
Murphy and McBrearty’s performances will decided the outcome of this encounter. If they play to their full potential, Donegal can win this tie. If Mayo can come up with a plan to neutralise their threat, Mayo will go on to face Dublin in the semi-final.
Big games need big players and these are the days that the likes of Michael Murphy lives for. People forget that two months ago, Donegal were being talked up as potential all-Ireland winners. Their performance in the Ulster Final was poor and they had poor spells against Galway, but Donegal are still a top side, with enough in their locker to overcome Mayo.
Verdict: Completely biased but Donegal by the narrowest of margins
Beat the bookie: First goal: Frank McGlynn