Donegal are back in the last eight and while they didn’t go the route they wanted the main thing is they were in the pot for the draw last Saturday night; as Jim said afterwards “we’re back were we would have been minus the cup.” We’re still the holders of the other cup and its up to Mayo now to take it off us. It’ll be a titanic clash, without doubt the tie of the round and one game that everyone will want to see.
Saturday was a typically nervy encounter, a real do-or-die feel to it early on with both teams being ultra-cautious and players desperate not to make mistakes. The downpours that hit Carrick in the hours before throw-in made for a greasy surface and added to the conservative nature of the play in the opening exchanges. This mind set was transferred to the crowd with the tight surroundings making for a claustrophobic cauldron. Carrick was a far from ideal venue as regards traffic, ticketing or ease of access but for atmosphere, a packed house at a small venue makes for a great noise.
It wasn’t just on the field and in the stands where the tension was evident, on the sideline Jim and Rory were up for the battle as well as their set-to with Justin McNulty and Fergal Byron clearly demonstrated – this game meant a lot, this title that Donegal are defending means a lot and they were hurting from the nature of their no-show in the Ulster Final.
The match took quite a while to settle down and the first huge roar from the green and gold contingent was provided by a booming score from the right by Michael Murphy. A few moments earlier he had hit Laois newcomer O’Carroll with a shuddering shoulder as he and his team set the tone for what would be a dogfight for the most part.
Michael had spoken midweek of righting the wrongs from Clones and with so many players needing to atone for abject personal displays, there was a real desire to make a statement. Neil McGee was one such man, coming in for a bit of a roasting against Conor McManus the previous week he was in no mood for a repeat performance. Composed at the back, he also drove forward on numerous occasions capping an excellent display with a surging run and point near the end. Paddy McGrath alongside him in the full back line again was fantastic; the Ardara man just never seems to have a bad game.
McGee’s point came in a closing period where players were happy to take on the posts, with Colm McFadden and substitute Leo McLoone also registering white flags. This was a welcome development as at times the patience the team shows up front can lead to scoring opportunities being neglected. The team has been very economical this year, hitting very few wides but there may be point scoring chances being ignored also. A more progressive shooting policy in the early stages, as well the latter of the game, could serve us well next week as a good start could be crucial against Mayo.
The green and red are still smarting from the early onslaught their Hill 16 goal took in last year’s All-Ireland Final and will be hell-bent on making a quick start this time around; .if they were to fall behind again their minds would inevitably drift back to September. Conversely, Mayo getting ahead early would see Donegal chasing the game and as we saw against Monaghan that’s not an easy task to be faced with, especially for a team who will be playing for the third weekend in succession.
If Murphy’s score was the first big cheer of the day then Anthony Thompson made the Donegal roar reverberate around Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada with his majestic piece of skill in the second half. Following good work from Eamon McGee to dispossess Laois as they attacked, Thompson broke onto the loose ball on the right wing. Aware that he was about to be tackled by a blue jersey, instead of bending his back to pick up the ball he delightfully chipped it into his arms without breaking stride. He kept going up the wing before driving the ball across to McFadden who popped it over the bar. That put Donegal five points up and despite a Laois rally to close to within two they were on their way back to Croke Park.
As the scoreboard ticked over in the closing stages Rory Gallagher turned to the Laois bench and let out a roar of his own, conveying just how much this meant. Donegal were down after the Ulster Final but not out. True it was Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon whereas Mayo at Headquarters will be an entirely different challenge but at least we’re back on track. Next week will require every ounce of character and every fibre of energy to repeat last autumn’s result.
Although it was tough to accept a defeat in the provincial showpiece, in some ways it was great to be back on the road for a qualifier. Before Jim came along this was a road very well-travelled by the Donegal faithful and it brought back some good memories. Of course our last sojourn through the back door ended on that fateful day in South Armagh three years ago. That was a seminal moment in the history of Donegal football – from the dying embers of that day came an All-Ireland winning team. Only time will tell whether or not Carrick can mirror Cross in being a catalyst for something special. If the team can come up with a mammoth performance and win on Sunday next, Carrick will also live long in the memory.