GAA – ALLIANZ NFL DIVISION 1
A WIN for Donegal against Mayo in Castlebar on Sunday, throw-in 2pm, will almost certainly guarantee them a place in next month’s Division 1 National Football League final.
That’s the carrot for Rory Gallagher’s team who extended their unbeaten run to five games after last weekend’s eventful draw with Monaghan in Ballyshannon.
Donegal go into the last series of games in second spot, level on points with the Farney men, but they enjoy a better scoring difference against a team who entertain league leaders Dublin in Clones, also on Sunday afternoon.
Wins for Monaghan and Donegal would see the teams renew rivalry at Croke Park in the league decider although that scenario appears unlikely as a draw in Clones would be enough to guarantee high-flying Dublin a place in the League Final for a fifth successive year.
For Donegal, it’s already been a successful league campaign but the management and players would like nothing better than to have some silverware to accompany them on their trip Stateside next month.
To do that they have to get the better of a Mayo side who, depending on other results, could be relegated out of the top flight for the first time in twenty years should Donegal get the better of them at McHale Park.
Last year, a late Leo McLoone goal ensured that Donegal picked up their first competitive win over Mayo since the 2012 All Ireland final while the sides drew in 2015.
“Mayo were the second best team in the country last year and we’re just looking forward to it now,” Gallagher said.
After an opening day defeat at home to Kerry, Gallagher’s men have picked up eight points from their past five games (three wins and two draws).
Speaking to reporters after the Monaghan game, the Donegal manager agreed that his charges had enjoyed a good league campaign to date.
“I think overall we have done quite well in it. We have been very competitive and have done a lot of good things. We set out with no targets. We said this was going to be a tough, bruising league,” Gallagher said.
The Monaghan game saw Gaoth Dobhair’s Cian Mulligan make his first league start while fellow U21 players Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher, Micheal Carroll and Jamie Brennan were all in the starting fifteen in Ballyshannon.
Another U21 player, Kieran Gillespie, also from the Gaoth Dobhair club, replaced Neil McGee at half-time and enjoyed a storming game against Monaghan dangerman Jack McCarron.
At the other end of the spectrum, experienced players like Karl Lacey, Martin McElhinney and Mark McHugh came on as substitutes last time out as did Patrick McBrearty who has been troubled with a groin injury for much of the past month.
With Frank McGlynn (hamstring) also expected to be part of Donegal’s match-day squad on Sunday and towering midfielder Jason McGee edging ever closer to a return, the Donegal manager faces a welcome selection headache ahead of the Mayo game.
One man who won’t be available though is Kilcar’s Ryan McHugh who left Ballyshannon with his left ankle in a protective cast.
“He was in a fair degree of pain, and very seldom does he have to come off injured. There was no way he could have played on. He’s a big player for us, but look if he’s not available next week, we’ll have to grin and bear it,” Gallagher said.
Whatever fifteen are selected on Sunday, the Donegal boss is bracing himself for yet another stern test.
“Whether they’re safe or not, Mayo are going to want to do well in front of their home crowd, and it’s a big test for us,” he said.
Reflecting back on the Monaghan game, Gallagher admitted to being disappointed that they failed to close out the game. Leading by three points going into the closing minutes they conceded a soft penalty which Conor McManus duly dispatched beyond Mark Anthony McGinley in the Donegal goal.
“When you’re in a position to win the game and you don’t win it, of course it’s disappointing. A draw is some consolation but overall, I didn’t think our performance was that great, all be it, we were in a position to win the game at the end,” he said.
Clinical and ruthless are two words Gallagher looks for when he describing his team’s performance on any given day but he felt that neither trait was to the fore against Monaghan.
“We haven’t been good enough over the last few years at opening up the leads when we’re in front, and from that point of view, it was disappointing to get caught at the end, when you don’t stretch it (the lead) out,” he admitted.
“You learn a lot from every game, and there were plenty of learnings from that,” he added.
Mayo picked up their third victory of an erratic league campaign against Tyrone in Omagh and with the possibility of relegation, albeit remote, still hanging over their heads they’ll be looking for maximum points on Sunday.
Mayo could be relegated provided that Cavan beat Roscommon at Dr Hyde Park as the Breffni men’s win over Stephen Rochford’s team two weeks ago means that they hold the advantage if the ‘head-to-head’ record is needed to separate two teams level on points.
Another possible sequence of results would leave Kerry, Cavan and Mayo all level on points and would mean scoring difference would be required to see who was relegated along with Roscommon.
At this stage, Cavan have the inferior scoring difference and so would be relegated.
All 21 players who featured for Mayo during last Sunday’s victory in Tyrone are expected to be available for selection again while both Ger Cafferkey and Seamie O’Shea lined out for their clubs last weekend.
A League final meeting with Dublin in Croke Park in early April has a nice ring to it and would round off a fine campaign for what is a relatively young, inexperienced, Donegal squad.
Date, Sunday, April 2
Venue McHale Park, Castlebar
Odds: Mayo have been installed as 8/15 favourites to beat Donegal (15/8)