A familiar foe awaits Donegal in Croke Park next Saturday and the team go into that game feeling good about themselves and knowing they have the wherewithal to beat Mayo.
The only issue is whether Donegal have enough left in the tank after five tough matches; because there is no doubting the ability is there with the second half blitz on Galway providing ample evidence.
As now seems the norm, the team stormed out of the blocks but then faded just as quickly. The second quarter appears to be a form of downtime, it happens so often that it is no longer a surprise. On the big days when the team has managed to put together a consistent display across most or all of a match, including a big second quarter, the performance has been amongst their best – think of the semi final victories over Cork and Dublin.
Donegal certainly reached a different level after the break with a devastating counter attacking salvo that floored Galway. A central figure, particularly to the fore when the game was still close, was Odhran MacNiallais.
The stylish midfield operator was outstanding in everything he did. He caught some superb ball in the engine room and scored three glorious points from play; there aren’t many players in the country who could convert the chances the young sharp shooter was knocking over.
His fielding was wonderful to watch and it is especially impressive considering he rarely gives away frees when contesting for kick outs. So often you see referees penalising players for a slight nudge in the back or an arm over the shoulder of an opponent but Odhran’s spring off the ground means he can out jump most without resorting to fouling.
The long range efforts along with those of Colm McFadden and others were in stark contrast to the shooting against Monaghan last time out – those that were shanked wide in the Ulster Final were finding their target this time around.
McFadden ran MacNiallais close for the man of the match gong after he produced a brilliant display around the middle. Whether he’s spraying passes, making tackles or kicking over booming points, the Creeslough marksman is revelling as a deep lying link man and it was important he got back on track following an abject display in Clones.
Colm has always been a talented finisher but he has added a significant string to his bow by committing to taking on his marker much more and ruthlessly driving at goal. His first instinct nowadays when close to goal is to beat his man and he displayed this with his assist for Patrick McBrearty’s early goal. In years gone by his first option would be to find a yard of space in which to swing that trusty left peg but now he is direct and sniffing for goals – a feature of his and Donegal’s game that will be crucial next week. Mayo’s Achilles heel over the past few years has been the number of goals they concede in big matches, as Donegal know all too well from 2012.
Another man who will be central to the assault on Mayo’s rearguard will be Michael Murphy. He spent much of his Saturday evening inside at full forward and produced some majestic moments like only he can.
His outrageous catch and subsequent point was a stunning piece of action; it was Aussie Rules-esque and even had a hint of a basketball slam dunk with Michael managing to hang in the air for that split second before he got his paws on the O’Neills. It was an important moment in the overall context of the match too as it lifted the crowd and Ryan McHugh’s goal followed soon after. The Maestro was again central to that score, the deftness of his touch vital in ensuring McHugh didn’t have to break stride before finishing beautifully to the corner of the net.
Of course after any full-forward magic from Murphy, the usual cries of ‘why doesn't he play there all the time?’ grow ever louder. Galway were very accommodating in their defensive setup and effectively laid out a welcome mat for Murphy unlike Monaghan or indeed any Ulster team who suffocate him with anything up to four markers at times. The good news is that Mayo may well be just as obliging – if so, expect to see quite a bit of Michael on the edge of the square again.
While Donegal had a few standout performers, there were plenty others who went about their business quietly and efficiently. Neil Gallagher got through his usual mountain of work while surprise starter Hugh McFadden handled his first championship outing at Headquarters admirably. The Killybegs man put in a great shift and notably made some big hits when the ball was being scrapped for in the middle third.
Half time substitute Anthony Thompson also went about his task with the minimum of fuss and with doubts over Karl Lacey’s availability next weekend Thompson will surely be needed again. Eamonn Doherty is another option at half back and he will be pleased with his calm and assured time on the field, a couple of potentially costly slips apart.
Overall though the defence looked a little bit loose and open in the first half and while Donegal will be intent on plundering Mayo for goals, it is just as imperative that Paul Durcan’s goal is kept under lock and key.
As well as the injury concern over Lacey, Eamon McGee and McBrearty are unlikely to be fully fit but in the case of the latter he will certainly be expected to start even though that knock to the knee suffered against Derry continues to be a problem.
The health and wellbeing of the team is Rory Gallagher’s biggest concern this week but in mixing things up a bit against the Tribesmen, the boss will hope that Martin McElhinney and Christy Toye amongst others are fresh and ready for big impacts. Toye only made a brief cameo but still managed to add another goal to his Croke Park tally; his wonderfully struck shot the latest in a long line of HQ goals that started way back in 2002 with a major against Meath.
One week doesn’t allow much time to prepare for such a huge game but the team appear in much better shape than at the same stage two years ago. After the 2013 Ulster Final defeat to Monaghan, Donegal made seriously hard work of their qualifier against Laois. It was sheer will that got them that victory, even though it was clear there was very little left in the legs that night in Carrick on Shannon. Now though there seems to be confidence within the players that they can still achieve the ultimate goal this year and they know that one defeat doesn’t suddenly make them a bad team.
There are plenty arguments that can be made for a win for either side next week so whether Donegal or Mayo win, neither outcome would be a surprise. The margins are so very fine.
At half time of the earlier game on Saturday between Tyrone and Sligo, the Artane Band provided the musical entertainment. One particular tune that got an airing will strike a chord with Donegal supporters as they converge onto Jones Road next week in their droves – Don’t Stop Believin’. Bring it on.