Belief is everything in sport and long before the GAA was heavily populated with sports psychologists, this current Donegal side always looked like their name was on the trophy irrespective of who they were playing in the All-Ireland final last Sunday. I do not think the intervention of any amount of psychology would have stopped them winning their second All- Ireland. For a combination of reasons they had acquired a belief that they would win this year’s title, unless maybe an exceptional team stood in their way. Mayo are a very good team but, unfortunately, just did not have a sufficient number of big powerful men in key positions throughout the field to deny this Donegal side. One line in particular could have done with a big strong ball winner. If we had a Michael Murphy at 14, then I believe Mayo would have walked the steps on Sunday evening as champions. That is how close it was. But we do not appear to have that extra jewel at the moment. The fact that the aforementioned Michael Murphy is half a Mayo man does not make it any easier to accept!
The All Ireland final is one of the greatest sporting occasions anyone could hope to enjoy. Not alone did I personally enjoy the occasion, but I loved every bit of the build-up to it as well. Croke Park was a magical place to be last Sunday. From the guys who abseiled from the top of the Hogan Stand to carry in the match ball to the waiting referee, to the golden ticker tape falling from around the stadium when the Sam Maguire Cup was presented to Michael Murphy, it was spectacular stuff. Yes, of course I am as disappointed as every other Mayo person that we did not win last Sunday. However, I am also immensely proud of the team. They displayed a level of bravery and endeavour right to the very end of the game, a game that could so easily have developed into a disaster for Mayo people after the opening salvo of scores from Donegal. And because of the bravery displayed and the fact that there were only four points separating the sides at the finish there was no real psychological fallout from losing this one.
There are regrets
However, deep down there will be many Mayo people who will have left Croke Park with serious regrets. Because Mayo were presented with a fantastic opportunity to bridge the 61-year gap, and despite all the talk of being back next year there is no guarantee that they will be. The initial sting will mellow with time but the Mayo players will remember this match far more than the brilliant victories over Down and Dublin in particular. That is the nature of players, and deep in the recesses of their minds this loss will have left them really hurting over the past week. Because, despite the horrible start, we asked some serious questions of Donegal. And they (Donegal ) looked vulnerable enough on lots of occasions throughout the afternoon. If only Mayo could have reduced the margin further, it would have been really interesting to see how Donegal would have reacted?
But most neutrals I have spoken to believe Donegal were the better side, and despite the fact that they did not play brilliantly well, they had inflicted too much damage in those opening minutes. But after the dreadful start Mayo did quite a brilliant job in closing down Donegal players while forcing them time and time again into sloppy kick passing which ensured Mayo were always left in with a shout of pulling off a shock victory. The one moment of brilliance came from Donegal’s Michael Murphy when he displayed a moment of genius to score one of the best goals I have witnessed in a final. It has been suggested that Mayo should never have allowed Kevin Keane to be left isolated on Donegal’s most potent attacker in the opening minutes. It was so crucial for Mayo to keep it tight in the opening quarter, but all the best made plans can go out the window once the game starts. On the other hand I believe it would not have made a real difference what defender was left marking the Donegal full-forward as he has such enormous strength and ball winning ability. His finishing shot was unstoppable, and, coming so early in the game, it gave Donegal an enormous boost in the confidence stakes. It also meant they had managed to get the game on their terms, which is exactly where Mayo wanted to be. It also suggested that Donegal’s greater physicality, particularly in their full-forward line, could be the match winning. And so it proved when they gobbled up their second goal inside 11 minutes. This allowed them the luxury of settling into their rhythm and meant that Mayo were going to have to chase the game all the way to the finish. The fact that Mayo refused to bend the knee on this occasion ensured we were not subjected to the ugliness of the 2004 and 2006 experiences and is a tribute to the resilience and character of the team. This means that the Mayo programme of rebuilding for the 2013 season will be reasonably seamless as management will be hugely encouraged with so much of what has evolved this year.
Mayo never let Donegal dominate after opening salvo
Donegal came into this final on the back of some brilliant performances and, from their point of view, they will not be in the slightest bit concerned that they did not grace the final with their true ‘A’ game. However, they were never allowed to exert their dominance after the opening 11 minutes and some Mayo people will take encouragement from that fact. Having reduced the deficit to a manageable three points by half time, I thought we might have a chance of pulling off a victory, but I was never fully convinced that we would. Our forwards were getting their hands on a lot of ball, but the goal that was so badly required never looked to be on the agenda.
In summary Donegal are a little further down the road in their development than Mayo, and ultimately these are the small margins that can be magnified on big match days like last Sunday. The poor start to the first half was bad but we did not start too well in the second half either. Mayo created a couple of wonderful scoring chances but failed to capitalise both from frees and open play. That can leave a team empty after the effort involved in creating those chances.
Mayo have improved enormously this year and if I am to be perfectly honest, I did not think earlier in the year that we would be contesting this year’s final. There is so much now to build on. Mayo are in a much stronger place than they were six months ago and the manner in which Mayo played in the latter stages of this year’s championship will have done lots for the confidence of the team. The place to get the best experience is in the All- Ireland final. James Horan too will be a smarter, wiser, manager from the experience. I will gladly settle for another one or two occasions like last Sunday if I genuinely believed we were getting closer to the Holy Grail. I believe we are.