Derry standing tall as depleted squad see off Mayo
Shortly after referee Paudie Hughes had blown the final whistle on this league semi-final, Derry rewarded for their tooth-and-nail tenacity with a league final against Dublin to come, they created a human circle on the Croke Park pitch.
Captain Mark Lynch stood in the middle, delivering a message with intensity. All season long, Lynch has been immaculate for Derry and was the same here with nine points. Once Fergal Doherty was sent off after 24 minutes, he simply strapped the rest of the team to his back and dragged them to victory.
Message delivered, he ran out of the circle and to the dressing rooms for a quick change and a jump into some fast transport, with the panicked expression of a man whose wife is about to go into labour. Which was the case.
All year, Derry have been brilliant and is another huge step. Their manager Brian McIver was serving a time-based suspension arising out of a difference of opinion with a fourth official during their narrow defeat away to Cork. It did not prevent him from delivering pre-match and half-time addresses, but it forced him into the Hogan Stand.
During that first half, Mayo looked at any stage that they might peel away, but Derry refused to let it happen. When they drove directly, they got a profitable return, such as in the 13th minute when Lynch ran through the heart of defence, played a one-two with Cailean O'Boyle and momentarily lost control. It squirted out to Emmet McGuckin, he dished off to O'Boyle who squeezed a daisy-cutter to the net to take the lead.
Mayo answered nine minutes later when Aidan O'Shea blocked down a Benny Heron attempt, Fergal Doherty meeting O'Shea with a crunching tackle a split second after he released Kevin McLoughlin down the line as the ball pinged through Mickey Sweeney to Andy Moran, who finished crisply.
Doherty (pictured with Hughes) had already been yellow carded and this second meant Derry were a man down with 46 minutes to play.
Colm Boyle immediately took up a sweeper role and it seemed Mayo would close the game out.
Derry were not prepared to go quietly into the night and wing-forwards Enda Lynn and Ciaran McFaul attacked with adventure, drawing a number of personal fouls as the Mayo defence struggled with their running game, two Lynch points leaving Derry ahead by the slenderest of margins at the break.
O'Boyle made the move to midfield for the second half, but when it became apparent he was struggling in open play, Derry introduced the athletic Niall Holly with Mayo reeling off five points, two each from Jason Doherty and Alan Freeman.
With the numerical disadvantage, Derry had to be patient in attacks, and it took the composure of Sean Leo McGoldrick to break the line in the next attack. He drew the Mayo defence and left fellow wing-back Kevin Johnston with the task of palming to the net.
The flow of scores would see the game tied twice again before Derry drove for home. Substitute Emmet Bradley laced over after a typically-painstaking raid, Enda Lynn adding to it with another from an impossible angle.
A burst upfield from Oisín Duffy ended with the ball in Lynch's arms and he arrowed over to put a goal between the teams with time up.
Mayo had one last chance when a foul gave Andy Moran a free in front of goal. He put everything behind the drive but it caught nothing but goalstop.
Derry will be back here in a fortnight's time for a National final. It's not unusual territory for them given their prominence in league campaigns of the '90s.
In more recent times, they won a final against Kerry in 2008 and suffered a reversal the year after. Yet this team have generated excitement among their hardcore support.
Dublin produced a 17-point turnaround yesterday in their semi-final against Cork. That's the sort of statistic that will be sharpening the focus around Owenbeg for the next fortnight.
DERRY: T Mallon; O Duffy, C McKaigue, D McBride; K Johnston 1-0, G O'Kane, SL McGoldrick 0-1; F Doherty, P Bradley; C McFaul 0-1, M Lynch (Capt) 0-9, 6f, E Lynn 0-1; B Heron, E McGuckin 0-1, C O'Boyle 1-1. Subs: N Holly for O'Boyle (46), A Devlin for Heron (51), E Bradley 0-1, for P Bradley (61), C Kielt for Johnston, A McAlynn for McGuckin (67)C McWilliams for McFaul (71)
Yellow cards: Doherty (16, 24)
Red cards: Doherty (24)
MAYO: R Hennelly; B Harrison, G Cafferkey, S McHale; L Keegan 0-1, C Boyle, D Vaughan; Aidan O'Shea 0-1, J Gibbons 0-1; K Higgins 0-1, A Moran (Capt) 1-1, J Doherty 0-2; K McLoughlin, A Freeman 0-6, 5f, 1x '45', M Sweeney 0-2. Subs: K Keane for Cafferkey (33), E Varley 0-1, for K McLoughlin (48), T Parsons for Higgins (59), S O'Shea for Gibbons (63), R Feeney for Doherty (70).
Yellow cards: Keegan (35), Gibbons (35+1) Red cards: 0
Referee: Paudie Hughes (Armagh)