The very fine line which can separate success from failure in the All-Ireland football championship has seldom been brought into sharper focus than in this year’s series.
If marquee forwards such as Colm McFadden, Michael Murphy, Cillian O’Connor and Alan Dillon have quite rightly earned generous plaudits for the scoring feats which have helped to secure the arrival of Donegal and Mayo in Sunday’s decider, then the respective goalkeepers Paul Durcan and David Clarke deserve bouquets for what proved season-defining saves.
Donegal’s Durcan enjoyed his finest moment of 2012 to date in the dying moments of his team’s Ulster semi-final against Tyrone when, his vision obscured by a sea of bodies, he somehow got an outstretched leg to a goal-bound shot from Martin Penrose, thus managing to divert the ball to safety and secure his team’s fragile two-point win.
Relief was the overriding emotion within the Donegal camp afterwards and this was transformed into delight when subsequent victories over Down, Kerry and Cork saw their passport stamped for the final.
Durcan’s athleticism against Tyrone was subsequently complemented by Clarke’s vision and alertness against Dublin when, with the pendulum having swung markedly in favour of Pat Gilroy’s side, he somehow contrived to beat away Bernard Brogan’s well-hit drive to help carry Mayo into the decider.
In effecting the most important save of his goalkeeping career to date, Clarke (pictured) displayed inspiring captaincy, particularly when it is considered that successive Mayo teams have folded in the last quarters of a litany of All Ireland semi-finals and finals within the past 20 years.
Little wonder then that Donegal manager Jim McGuinness and his Mayo counterpart James Horan can take great encouragement from the fact that the man between their posts carries the same value as their most productive striker.
And as well as being the last line of defence, Durcan and Clarke are viewed as the first line of attack because of the length, variety and scope of their kick-outs.
Yet despite Durcan’s consistency, the fact that Donegal have conceded three goals in their six championship matches so far is a source of concern to manager McGuinness.
Mayo have conceded two goals in four championship matches and both of these were recorded by Down in the All-Ireland quarter-final, which the Westerners won comfortably by 3-18 to 2-9.
It’s no surprise, then, to discover that Durcan and Clarke will go into Sunday’s final sharing a twin ambition — to win coveted All Ireland medals and to keep a clean sheet in the process.