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5 big picture takeaways from Donegal's 2012 All-Ireland football final win over Mayo

Jim McGuinness’s finest hour arrived eight years ago.

Colm McFadden celebrates scoring a goal.
Colm McFadden celebrates scoring a goal.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The 2012 All-Ireland football final between Donegal and Mayo was aired on TG4 earlier today.

1. McGuinness genius 

Donegal had gone close in their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin the previous year, but Jim McGuinness tweaked his system in 2012 to give them a more attacking outlet.  

It’s easy to forget now how lowly Donegal were before McGuinness took charge. He changed the sport forever with his gameplan that saw Donegal swarm their defence with bodies before breaking quickly on the counter-attack. 

With forwards of the calibre of Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty up front, McGuinness knew they had the firepower to beat teams on a limited supply of ball. 

It was a seminal year for Gaelic football as club and county teams all over Ireland attempted to copy Donegal’s style, which saw the game move towards a defensive style that it took years to come out of.

jim-mcguinness-celebrates-with-his-selectors-at-the-final-whistle Jim McGuinness celebrates with his selectors at the final whistle. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

2. Murphy’s key early goal 

McGuinness showed his tactical nous by trying to isolate Murphy on the edge of the square in the early stages as Donegal looked to hit him with direct and early ball. It was a notable departure from their usual running game but it had the desired effect – two of Donegal’s opening three scores were green flags. 

Murphy’s opener inside three minutes arrived after a perfectly measured crossfield ball by Lacey. The centre-back was heavily involved in McFadden’s second goal eight minutes later as a neat move saw the latter capitalise on McBrearty’s shot that struck the upright. 

Things could have gotten ugly for Mayo but Donegal were denied a third goal in the 16th minute after McFadden and Murphy combined, only for David Clarke to pull out a key stop. That could have been curtains for Mayo. 

3. Start of a decade of All-Ireland final heartbreak for Mayo

Was this Mayo’s best chance to win an All-Ireland? 

Had they not given Donegal a seven-point head start, there’s every chance Mayo would have done enough to lift the Sam Maguire given how they played over the final hour of the game. 

2012 was James Horan’s second year in charge and he built a team that would compete for All-Irelands over the next decade. Mayo fell to Dublin the following September and would suffer further heartbreaking final defeats to the Dubs in 2016 (after a replay) and 2017.

Things cold have turned out so differently had they prevailed on that afternoon eight years ago.  

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james-horan James Horan reacts during the final moments of the match. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

4. Donegal peaking

The likes of Lacey and McFadden would endure injury-hit campaigns in the years after 2012, but that season the pair were in electric form.  

A midfield partnership of Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh were in commanding form, while Mark McHugh was the best sweeper in the game.   

A rock solid defence featured the McGee brothers, Frank McGlynn, Paddy McGrath and Anthony Thompson – most of whom enjoyed their best campaign in 2012.  

Murphy was a six-year veteran by that stage, hotshot forward McBrearty was still in his teens  and even their bench packed a serious punch. It was Donegal at their peak with the majority of their key men in their mid-20s.  

rory-kavanagh-and-aidan-oshea Aidan O'Shea fields a kick-out during the game. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

5. Same faces remain for Mayo 

It’s striking how much of the Mayo team remain pivotal figures in the current side. It was a team at the beginning of its life cycle. The 2020 version is certainly closer to the end than the beginning.  

When compared with powerhouse sides like Dublin and Kerry, the Mayo team remains very familiar to the one that took the field against Donegal in 2012 – particularly the defence.

David Clarke, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle all started that day and, injuries aside, would be in line to start if and when the 2020 championship resumes.

Further upfield, Aidan O’Shea, Seamie O’Shea, Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin, Cillian O’Connor remain key cogs of Horan’s side.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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