BY CHRIS MCNULTY
SO, where did it all go wrong?
Jim McGuinness had barely sat down on his seat in the packed media room in the Hogan Stand when his inquisitors asked the question that had been on everyone’s lips on Sunday evening.
“Where do you want to start. It’s omething that we’ll have to work out over the next couple of weeks,” McGuinness said.
It was a day when the house of cards stumbled spectacularly, Donegal falling to their heaviest Championship defeat in 67 years.
Two early goals by Cillian O’Connor and Donal Vaughan had Mayo steamrolling ahead by the 13th minute. James Horan’s team were clinical, cool and composed, showing that the soft underbelly that once defined Mayo had gone.
“We were actually reasonably happy with the way they started the game,” McGuinness said.
“We were figuring if we got in level or a couple of points up or down we’d be in a good position for the second half. The second goal then obviously took the wind out of our sails.
“But the short version is we met a very hungry team today that were coming into this team with mission of trying to win the All-Ireland.
“We had that last year in our play and everything that we did and Mayo have it now. Rather than making excuses, the best thing is to acknowledge what Mayo brought to the table today, the desire and the hunger, and the performance they put in, which was a fairly impressive performance.”
Karl Lacey was called into action after 23 minutes and was clearly showing signs of a player who has had a punishing scheduled and who is not yet close to being 100 per cent fit, while Mark McHugh started the game two weeks after a heavy hit put him out of the Ulster final after nine minutes and left him hospitalised for two nights.
It was a defeat that draws to an end a disappointing year. Relegation from Division 1 looked to have been recovered from when Donegal defeated Tyrone in Ballybofey in May, but defeat in the Ulster final and then the manner of yesterday’s crumbling have left some searching questions that McGuinness said will be put to his group in the coming weeks.
He said: “We haven’t been ourselves all year. I don’t want to make excuses because it’s Mayo’s day and they’re fully deserving of their victory but we haven’t got traction all year. We had an awful lot of niggles and key players out and we haven’t been able to build momentum. But I don’t want to use that as excuses.
“You have to acknowledge the opposition and say they were on the money today and they fully deserve their victory.”
It was close to a complete performance by Mayo, who had Aidan O’Shea, Donal Vaughan and Cillian O’Connor in sumptuous form all day.
However, they met a Donegal side that looked every inch a tired and battleworn team.
“It’s the flattest we’ve been, you know,” McGuinness said.
“We weren’t competitive. We weren’t as competitive as we normally are or as we should be.
“There were a lot of gaps in our defence and we didn’t have energy for pressing the ball and we struggled to get up the field so there were a lot of things there that we are normally good at.
“We weren’t able to execute that and when you’re not able to do that obviously you’re not going to be at the level but they were and even if we were fully at ourselves I think the result probably would have been with Mayo because of what they brought to the table, that intensity and that drive, they believe in their manager, they believe in their gameplan and all those things push you forward. That’s exactly what we had last year.”
Donegal had responded well to O’Connor’s opening goal with a pair of Michael Murphy points bookending a score by Mark McHugh. When Vaughan broke through for the second it shook them to the point of no return.
It was suggested to McGuinness that Donegal had ‘collapsed’.
“‘Collapses’ is a hard word but that’s the reality,” said the Glenties man.
“I knew we weren’t ourselves and I knew that instead of managing a team, we were managing a situation. That’s the difference probably.
“Every manager wants to be managing the team with everyone available, everyone fully fit but again not to get caught up in that because the reality is the other team delivered the performance today and we went into the game today hoping we were going to deliver the performance.”
Mayo had been stung by defeat to Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland final. Theirs has been a long-running crusade for Sam Maguire now – stretching back to the fabled and cursed men of 1951. Their time could well be now as, under Horan, they’ve developed a streak that hasn’t been known to a Mayo team in many years.
McGuinness had sensed a big display from the Connacht champions.
He said: “I expected a performance like that, yes. Obviously they’re hurting badly after losing the All-Ireland last year and they wanted to get back there so we knew they were going to bring that.
“If we hadn’t won the All-Ireland last year we would have been delighted that Mayo had won it. There were two new teams in the final and obviously such a history in trying to get over the line. So we knew they were bringing all of that to the table.
“For us, we weren’t able to match it and we have to look at all the reasons why we weren’t able to match and be honest in that appraisal.”
On the decisions to play those players who had been laid up lately, McGuinness said that they had been made in consultation with his team’s medics.
He said: “They tell us when they’re fit. They see us when they’re ready to join back in. They tell us when to back off them as well. So, all of that is really dependent on the medical team.
“We’d have loved to have had Karl from the very first game but the reality is that he only played two or three games and he probably wasn’t at the level and he showed a lot of heart for a man that wasn’t at the level. You have to admire that.
“But I don’t want to get caught up in that to be honest because it’s Mayo’s day and they fully deserved their victory and you have to acknowledge that.”