Mayo moved a step closer to safety in division one of the National Football League on Sunday with a four point win over All Ireland champions Donegal in Elverys McHale Park. While Mayo's status in division one for next year isn't assured just yet, they still have a shot at a place in the league semi-finals if they beat Cork in a fortnights time and results elsewhere go their way.
Sunday's game was a strange one, with Mayo not really hitting their top gears, yet they were still the better team for the most part especially in the second half. Yet they didn't really look like they were definitely going to hang on for victory until the final whistle was blown.
Not for the first time this season, Mayo's shooting radar wasn't fully functioning as they kicked ten wides over the 70 minutes, equally spread out over each half and they coughed up the ball in good attacking positions on more than one occasion. But Sunday, was all about getting the points first and the performance second, they needed to give themselves a fighting shot of staying in the division come the final game on Lee-side in a fortnights time.
Cillian O'Connor made his return to the starting 15 which was a welcome boost to the large home faithful who showed up on Sunday, but having played a full 60 minutes less than 24 hours perviously with the u21 team it was going to be a very tough test for the Ballintubber man. Mayo had the first chance to score straight from the throw in when Seamus O'Shea burst his way into a shooting position, but pulled his effort wide of the post on the near side. The honours of opening the scoring was left to O'Connor who stroked over a free from the stand side of the field close in on the two minute mark. Donegal hit straight back at Mayo and were in the ascendancy early on with Mayo not making much of an impact in the early midfield exchanges. The All Ireland champions rolled off three points on the bounce from the third to ninth minute. Both Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy kicked frees, with the Donegal captain adding another from play. In that same time period Mayo kicked two wides, with O'Connor pulling a free wide and Lee Keegan screwing the ball well past the post after a charging run. Mayo were getting on a lot of the ball at this stage but they were failing to make it count, Jason Doherty, Chris Barrett and Seamus O'Shea all turned over the ball by taking the wrong options with either foot or fist passes. McFadden stretched Donegal's lead out to three points 16 minutes in, when he hooked an effort from play over the bar after he burst through the challenge of Chris Barrett to create some space.
O'Connor cut the gap to two a minute later after Seamus O'Shea picked him out with a great pass, O'Connor held off his man to find some room to shoot from close range. With a quarter of an hour left in the half, Kevin McLoughlin put only one between the sides with a free from the right hand side. The free came about after Michael Conroy was hauled down after he won the ball well in front of the Donegal full back line. Conroy was a constant outlet for Mayo attacking balls and shipped a fair few knocks winning that ball over the course of the game.
A minute later, McLoughlin found himself with the ball out near the stand side of the field, he spotted Jason Doherty making a run for goal and played the ball into the Burrishoole man. Doherty had a great chance to grab a goal for Mayo, but his effort under pressure was put around the post by Paul Durcan in the Donegal goal.
The game was leveled up eight minutes before the break through another O'Connor free, which was followed closely by a point from Kevin McLoughlin to put Mayo into the lead. That lead was extended to two points before the break, thanks to another pointed placed ball from the Ballintubber man.
Donegal made two changes to their line up at the break with both Ryan McHugh and Marty O'Reilly coming into the action, Jimmy McGuinness had already made one change the during the first half with Ross Wherity coming into the game, after being left out of the starting 15 despite being named to wear number 12. Right from the off Mayo had a good goal chance when the ball was won by Kevin McLoughlin, who was one of Mayo's better performers on the day. He fed the ball to Michael Conroy who passed it on to Chris Barrett. The Bulmullet man took aim for goal but his effort was half blocked by a Donegal hand and it took the sting out of the effort and Paul Durcan saved it.
Donegal had the game level at 0-6 each five minutes into the half, first sub Marty O'Reilly pointed followed quickly by a fisted effort from McFadden. Mayo went back into the lead not long after and in no short part to abilities of Keith Higgins. The Ballyhaunis man intercepted a ball into the Mayo danger area and broke for open country. He made 40 meters with no-one getting close to him before he passed to Jason Doherty, before the Burrishoole man could pass the ball back he was pulled to the ground to give Mayo a free in and O'Connor did what was required of him.
Mayo were having lots of possession of the ball around now, but not getting the scores Seamus O'Shea and Barry Moran were dominating in midfield, McLoughlin was getting on a lot of ball with Tom Cunniffe and Colm Boyle both also becoming big influences in the game. Donegal leveled the game up again after 44 minutes when Rory Kavanagh swung the ball over the bar from close range after Mayo had coughed up the ball in the lead up to the point.
But Mayo were just about to land the afternoon's knock-out punch. Colm Boyle intercepted the ball and started the move. He passed the size five to Seamus O'Shea, who played a one-two with Keith Higgins. O'Shea kept powering forward with Higgins on his shoulder, he gave him the ball back again and he in turn played the final pass to Michael Conroy. The Davitts man wasn't able to pick the ball up, but he was able to pull on it and direct it past Durcan and in off the post to the back of the net, to give Mayo the lead their dominance deserved.
Ryan McHugh cut the gap back to two points on the 50 minute mark, but his score was sandwiched by two bookings for Donegal's Anthony Thompson and he was given his marching orders and Mayo a player advantage on the pitch. Cathal Carolan was another Mayo player who really came into the game in the second half and he was starting to influence the game quite a bit. Colm Boyle kicked a good score that he deserved for his overall performance to leave the score Mayo 1-8 Donegal 0-8 with 15 minutes left on the clock. With seven minutes left Donegal cut the gap back to two points through a Murphy free, but it was as close as they got as Mayo, wound the clock down, which on a few occasions did leave supporters with their hearts in their mouths, it has to be said.
The last scores came from a brace from the boot of sub Enda Conroy which eased Mayo's nerves as the clock ticket down. Mayo were also reduced to 14 men near the death when Jason Doherty picked up his second yellow card.
Mayo head to Cork in the strange position of neither being safe from relegation or fully out of the reckoning of making an appearance in the league semi-finals. Their fate will be made clear on Sunday afternoon in a fortnights time.
Mayo: C O'Connor (0-5, 4f ), K McLoughlin (0-2, 1f ), M Conroy (1-0 ), E Varley (0-2 ) C Boyle (0-1 )
Donegal: M Murphy (0-3, 2f ), C McFadden (0-3, 1f ), R Kavanagh (0-1 ), R McHugh (0-1 ), M O'Reilly (0-1 )
Mayo: D Clarke; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, T Cunniffe, C Boyle; B Moran, S O'Shea; K McLoughlin, A O'Shea, C Carolan; C O'Connor, J Doherty, M Conroy. Subs: R Feeney for C O'Connor (54 ), D Vaughan for K Higgins (58 ), E Varley for M Conroy (61 ), B Gallagher for S O'Shea (63 )
Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; D Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson; N Gallagher, R Kavanagh; N Gallagher, R Kavanagh; R Bradley, L McLoone, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden. Subs: R Wherity for D Walsh (22 ), R McHugh for R Bradley (HT ), M O'Reilly for L McLoone (HT ), R Bradley for N McGee (45 ), M McElhinney for R Wherity (63 )
Ref: M Duffy (Sligo )