ODHRAN MACNIALLAIS HAILED the influence of the returning Rory Kavanagh following Donegal’s victory over Mayo at MacCumhaill Park today.
The Gaoth Dobhair clubman scored two fine points in the 1-14 to 1-12 victory over the five-in-a-row Connacht champions and the second of those, on 40 minutes, edged Donegal in front for the first time. ‘
It was Kavanagh’s first start for the county since the 2014 All-Ireland final against Kerry, with the St Eunan’s midfielder putting in a fine performance, scoring a first half point and setting up Leo McLoone for the vital goal 13 minutes from the end.
Photo caption: Rory Kavanagh on the ball for Donegal this afternoon against Mayo in the Allianz League Division 1 clash at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey. Photo: Geraldine Diver
“Rory had a great game and I think he got a point too in the first half,” MacNiallais said of Kavanagh. “He was very, very good in the middle of the park there. He kind of controlled things at time, and he’s an unbelievable player to have back.”
Donegal trained at MacCumhaill Park for the first time this year on Thursday night and the familiarity with the Ballybofey ground where they’ve not lost in league or championship – a run of 14 games – was evident in front of 11,000. For Kavanagh, it looked as though he was never away.
“Even at training or in the dressing room, Rory is a big voice,” MacNiallais added. “He’s a great physical player and carries the ball well.
“When he’s on the ball, he’s calm and he always does the right thing. Rory’s a massive player for us to have back this year.
Whilst Rory Gallagher’s Donegal hammered Down 3-15 to 0-7 and enjoyed a comfortable 2-14 to 1-7 win over Cork in Ballyshannon, they were pushed to the limit this afternoon by a Mayo side who they’d not beaten since the 2012 All-Ireland final.
“We came here today expecting a very, very tough game and that’s what we got,” MacNiallais added. “Obviously, they’ve not started too well and we knew coming up here today to MacCumhaill Park, that they would give a massive push to get their first two points of the year, and that’s what they did.
“They battled hard there, but we knew if we stuck to our game plan throughout the game, that we would keep to them to as minimum amount of scores as possible.
“I think we did that well enough. They got the penalty near the end and that nearly killed us off, but we came back again and got the goal, so that was a massive win for us. I was saying to the boys when we were doing the warm-up that there was a championship feel to it.”
Mayo have given Donegal their fill of it in the last four years and this afternoon were three points up approaching the midpoint of the second half. But Donegal dug deep to come out on the right side of the result and can certainly be content with their excellent start to the Allianz League Division 1.
“Mayo always bring a massive physicality to every game they play,” MacNiallais added. “They have massive men around the middle – big, strong players. The likes of Lee Keegan, and Keith Higgins, and Colm Boyle, are all physical, and we were expecting a big physical battle today, but we coped well with it around the middle of the park I thought.
“You grow in confidence when you’re playing games. I just see it as building blocks, this last couple of years. I’m getting plenty of game time and training with the likes of Michael Murphy and these boys is just going to improve you. For the likes of these young players, Michael Carroll, Stephen McBrearty and Ciaran Thompson, they’re only going to improve like that.”
Odhrán MacNiallais was man of the match when Donegal defeated Cork in Ballyshannon earlier this month and put in another good showing this afternoon against Mayo. Photo: Geraldine Diver
Although Rory Gallagher said before a ball was thrown into the air in the league that survival was his aim this season, with six points Donegal are almost certainly in the clear – as no team has ever been relegated on such a total. The priority now might’ve changed but if Donegal can keep working hard and enjoying their football, they’ll be content to see where that takes them.
“It’s a long time since Donegal won Division 1 in 2007,” MacNiallais added. “Every day we go out we want to win. Hopefully we’ll be in a League semi and get to the final. It’d be nice to get a League medal. We’re just trying to improve every week.
“It’s a great building block for the Championship to try new things and try new players. We’ll have a good break after the League going into the Championship, which will be a big help. We didn’t have much of a break in the last few years and it kind of hampered the preparation. We’ll have more and better preparation this year.
“Next week will be a big challenge for us. We’ve three victories now and we’re sitting nicely so we need to keep pushing on and keep the hard work going. We’re down in Kerry next week. Next week will be a big challenge for us. We’ve three victories now and we’re sitting nicely so we need to keep pushing on and keep the hard work going.”