A duel of epic proportions
By Frank Craig
“Now that was living”.
Those were Jim McGuinness’ reverberating words when asked to describe extra-time and Donegal’s superhuman push to edge out Kildare in an All-Ireland quarter-final back in 2011.
The climax to that encounter was truly magical. But peer beyond the illuminated and translucent drizzle of that night, and the truth is the epic now recalled didn’t really have much of an opening or middle act.
The finale was so powerful though and McGuinness’ enthusiastic recollection remains almost as memorable as Kevin Cassidy’s winning score.
He would say after: “People are very rarely ‘alive’, you know. And for those 20 minutes in extra time what was going through my mind was: ‘this is unbelievable. Because those boy are in the thick of this now. Every moment counts and they are living on the edge. And it would be brilliant if they can come through this and win but even if the don’t, this is going to be a great life experience’.
“Because in that moment, they were living in the fullest sense. The atmosphere that evening was as raw as I have ever felt. And the lights coming on made it too. It was all kind of magical.”
What Donegal and Kerry served up last weekend on Jones Road went way beyond those euphoric 20 minutes from eight seasons ago.
It never dipped. It came out of the blocks at the exact same pace it would eventually cross the line at – a full 76 minutes later.
The athleticism and skill on display was simply astonishing. I’ve watched it back and it really was that good. I have to say there was a fair degree of pessimism in the air en route to the capital last weekend.
We already knew that Donegal were short the services of Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Paddy McGrath and Neil McGee. Subsequent rumour and hearsay in the press area regarding additional casualties only served to further dampen any lingering enthusiasm we might still have been harbouring.
Indeed, one pessimistic and former Donegal star, who shall remain nameless, feared “a hammering”. But that apprehension soon evaporated once the ball was thrown in.
Buckled up and strapped in, this quickly developed into the footballing equivalent of Space Mountain. And we were all along for the ride.
The first score was Donegal’s when Jason McGee broke the line and fired over. That alone, I felt, was impacting. By the time the midpoint rolled around the pre-game pessimism had dispersed and Donegal firmly believed they were now in a game.
Donegal also opened the second-half in fine fashion as Michael Langan drew the Ulster champions back level. On 39 minutes, Michael Murphy boomed over the first of two monster kicks to once again edge his team ahead, 0-12:0-11.
Then, disaster struck. A defensive mix-up allowed enough space for Paul Geaney to get in and nail the game’s opening goal.
By the 52nd minute, Donegal had again wrestled the upper hand back their direction when Murphy beat both Shane Ryan and the assembling match stewards who chose the most inappropriate of moments to begin to file behind the Kerry goal. 1-14:1-13.
From the 59th minute on, the sides were level a further seven times, 16 in total. Ryan McHugh delivered a performance grand enough to merit a perfect 10 in my colleague Ryan Ferry’s Player Ratings.
Yes, some Donegal stars might have struggled but they were no less courageous or valiant just because they were on a back foot.
With the dust just about settled, the fact remains Donegal still don’t know their Super 8s fate. It will be decided in Castlebar on Saturday week.
But given the many concerns over injuries and personnel, the break is probably both timely and welcome. Mayo themselves will also be glad of the respite. The likes of Keith Higgins, Patrick Durcan, Diarmuid O’Connor and Matthew Ruane all missed the win over Meath but are expected to come back into the equation on August 3.
Aidan O’Shea also picked up a knock against the Royals but should be good to go next weekend in McHale Park.
Make no mistake, Mayo possess the ability to pull the rug completely out from under Donegal’s feet. They’ve come in for some severe criticism in recent weeks.
In their own back yard, they’ll have so much motivation behind their bid to progress. Regardless of the obvious sub plots, there is an undoubted spice to Donegal and Mayo.
The contrasting emotions from 2012 now binds them. Mayo showed absolutely no mercy the following campaign when they dished out a 4-17 to 1-10 hammering to the then reigning Sam Maguire holders. It was a relentless kind of retribution and they didn’t hide their enjoyment that day.
As well as a route into the All-Ireland semi-finals, the Stephen Rochford factor simply cannot be ignored. There will undoubtedly be an edge to the evening.
Donegal are going to have to dig deep once again if they are to find their way back to an All-Ireland semi-final.
Castlebar – just like Croke Park last time out – has the potential to be another instant classic. I cannot wait.