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Croker echoes to thrills of Donegal as McGuinness's boys hot-foot it to the hills with Sam

Less than three minutes in, and Hill 16 was boiling in a riot of delirium. But what unfamiliar colours bedecked the sacred terrace of Croker on All-Ireland Final day.

No sky blue sea of Dublin or the imperial green and yellow of the Kingdom or the white and red of Tyrone. Instead, the Hill was a seething sea of sunshine yellow and a splash of green.

It was Donegal rising. One goal up with fewer than 180 seconds on the clock.

It was never supposed to be that easy. This was billed as the Big One, when two counties side-stepped out from the mighty shadows of the footballing giants who effortlessly passed Sam between them from year to year. But Donegal versus Mayo was set to change all that.

It was a long, long reach back into the past -- back to 1948 -- when two teams from Ulster and Connacht faced each other in an All-Ireland.

John T Costello was the second Taoiseach. Harry Truman was re-elected president of the United States and gas rationing, introduced in 1942, had just ended in Dublin.

What's more, these were two hungry counties. Twenty years had passed since Sam was carried aloft by the men and women of Tir Chonaill up and down the roads of the Inish- owen peninsula, through the highland villages of Ardara and Glenties and on to Gweedore.

Oh, but Mayo were hungrier still. Sixty-one long years had elapsed since they took possession of Sam. They were the bridesmaids at four All-Irelands in 11 years between 1996 -- when they came agonisingly close to victory -- and 2006.

In the run-up to yesterday, even in the dizzying aftermath of beating the champions Dublin in a display of grit and talent and sheer doggedness, Mayo barely dared to dream.

Even the team seemed to be willing the county not to be swept away in a frenzy of hope -- as Ballinrobe's Donal Vaughan said on the radio last week with a degree of quiet satisfaction: "There are no sheep being painted in Mayo."

Mayo had the Taoiseach in their corner (he wasn't painted red and green, though no doubt he was sorely tempted), and in his way, Enda Kenny -- who had been up to high doh all week about the match -- typifies the complex tangle of family roots of GAA loyalties.

He was born in Castlebar in the year his county last were champions, when his father Henry played on the winning team -- the son of Donegal woman Eithne McGinley.

Enda had said last week he would have a word with Pope Benedict on behalf of Mayo. But from the frantic start, it looked like God was sporting yellow and green.

One lightning-quick goal by Donegal captain, Glenswilly's Michael Murphy, another on the 11th minute by Colm McFadden, and no answer from a Mayo who seemed dazed.

But the men from Mayo were never going to roll over and cede the glittering prize of Sam without a fight. Their manager, James Horan, had instilled belief in this band of 15 brothers, and the ability to dig deep.

And then there were the fans, all 82,269 of them, who had made the proud pilgrimage from the Atlantic seaboard.

Yesterday, the Hogan and Cusack stands shook with song, a far remove from the more muted finals of recent years.

And Mayo did dig deep. Point by painstaking point they scrambled to close the gap. It became a first half of two halves. Ballintubber's Cillian O'Connor booted over three points. Their forwards began to trouble the hitherto unflappable Donegal defence.

Mayo tails rose. Going in at 10-7 seemed like a promise of an overturn to come, when the underdogs would bite back. Thirteen long minutes passed without a score from Donegal. Anything could happen.

The second half. See-saw. The heavy hand of history hovered and nerves began to show.

Donegal fought back with some quick points. Cillian O'Connor slotted over a free from an impossible angle. Mayo chased and chased.

As the giant clock showed 70 minutes, Mayo had a goal stopped on the line. Four points between them.

The whistle sounded. It was 2-11 to 0-13. All around Croker, yellow flags unfurled like sunflowers facing the last gentle rays of autumn. Sam was heading back to Ardara and Glenties and Gweedore and Buncrana and Dungloe. It was heading for the Hills of Donegal.

Golden streamers fluttered from the rooftops as captain Michael Murphy raised the trophy. He thanked everyone, but the loudest roar was for the manager maestro, Jim McGuinness -- "his passion for Donegal is indescribable".

But there was passion everywhere, on the pitch and in the stands. Tirghra, passion for their own piece of land -- right to the final whistle.

Donegal scorers: M Murphy (0-03f), C McFadden (0-03f) 1-04 each, R Bradley, N Gallagher, F McGlynn 0-1 each.

Mayo scorers: C O’Connor 0-05 (5f), E Varley (1f), K McLoughlin 0-02 each, L Keegan, M Conroy, R Feeney, J Gibbons 0-01 each.

Donegal: P Durcan, P McGrath, N McGee, F McGlynn, E McGee, K Lacey, A Thompson, N Gallagher, R Kavanagh, R Bradley, L McLoone, M McHugh, P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden

Subs: D Walsh for Bradley, M McElhinney for McBrearty, C Toye for McLoone

Mayo: D Clarke, K Keane, G Cafferkey, K Higgins, L Keegan, D Vaughan, C Boyle, B Moran, A O'Shea, K McLoughlin, J Doherty, A Dillon, E Varley, C O'Connor, M Conroy.

Subs: A Freeman for Doherty, J Gibbons for Conroy, R Feeney for Varley, S O’Shea for Moran

Referee: M Deegan (Laois)

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