Posted by Shane Stapleton

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2012 Donegalfan 520x280

There’s something special about Donegal and Mayo fans.

The atmosphere is just inclined to be that bit more raucous with these folk from the west. Of all the games this writer has been to in the last couple of seasons, a couple stand out for atmosphere because of these fans.

Donegal v Kildare, the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final at Croke Park. For 50 minutes of normal time, this was a stinker of a game to watch. But as the Tir Chonaill men began to claw their way back into this game one finger-length at a time during the second halves of both normal and extra time, the atmosphere charged.

Like a young child winding up the back wheels on a toy car, you knew the energy release was coming. For those lucky enough to witness it, a growing frenzy accompanied each score in the 1-12 to 0-14 win.

Of course many counties feel their fans are brilliant but it’s not often we get swept away by another set of supporters. Plenty of journalists are guilty of getting carried away during a game (present company included) and you couldn’t blame the Donegal media for adding to the cheers.

And this was a time when Donegal’s footballing style induced sickness in many folk — as if they swarmed and choked alone. For our part up on the upper tier of the Hogan Stand, it was clear that their blanket defence was partnered by a blanket attack.

The quilting has taken an extra year to hold in enough heat to take them to an All-Ireland final but you could see the evolving patterns even then. Their fitness too: Kildare were much-vaunted for their conditioning at the time but, as the opposition kept coming, three times in extra time did tiredness cause the Lilies to rugby tackle an Ulster champion to the turf.

The Donegal team that has so far delivered in 2012 was merely gestating last season — and you can see how far they have moved beyond that Kildare side, both on and off the pitch.

Jim McGuinness spoke intelligently at the time of how his team was still learning but, as proved in that game, they possess a willingness to never give up. The only occasion in which he had felt beaten as manager of this team was in a league game against Sligo earlier that year, when eight points down with 20 minutes to go.

Three points down with one half of extra time remaining, Donegal didn’t give up against Kildare in August 2011. Big players such as Michael Murphy (who was unable to start the game because of a hamstring injury) and Kevin Cassidy kept putting themselves in the firing line until the 92nd minute when the former kept play alive brilliantly with his toe to allow the latter to ultimately kill it off with a beautiful left-footed punt.

It was a magic finish to what had initially been a turgid game; the final 20 minutes of normal time and the entirety of extra time masking what went before. The Donegal fans, who continued to cheer at a sustained level of frenzy long after the final whistle, were breathtaking.

It was comparable to Dublin fans’ outpouring of emotion after their equally dramatic comeback win over Kerry to capture Sam Maguire a number of weeks later, but this in a quarter-final. Truly memorable.

We said that Mayo fans have provided extraordinary moments too and their recent win over Dublin perfectly illustrated that. As we’ve just mentioned, the Dubs are capable of bringing the house down but in this semi-final a blind man could tell you who got the scores because of the difference in volume when the Connacht side found the target. To go back to that word frenzy, each Mayo score was accompanied with an enlivening roar.

Had we the technology to measure the decibel level on the day, we’re sure Mayo would have tipped the scales by a distance and even touched what the Dubs reached when they bridged the gap to 1995 last season — and that in a semi-final.

Mayo are a sensitive bunch, which is understandable when you’re still nursing open wounds. Long-suffering, they’ll remind you. In a moment of thoughtlessness, this writer last year mistakenly referred to the Connacht title as the David Nestor Cup rather than the Nestor Cup in the lead-up to the Cork quarter-final. It was an unintentional slip but one that attracted plenty of ire online because it apparently suggested they were not being taken seriously; as if this was a belittling of the county.

That the poor recent record of Connacht teams in the All-Ireland series had also been pointed to, accompanied by a prediction of Cork winning, certainly added to their feeling. When we explained that it was simply a slip of the thumbs and that the prediction was based on what we’d seen before, Mayo fans were happy to accept the explanation — we’re not sure all would have, such is the emotional world of GAA.

Because these two counties have shown so much emotion in the past and present, it makes this final a truly exciting prospect. Two waves of noise crashing together — no doubt one ringing around Croke Park long after the final whistle peeps.

We can’t wait to be amid, and swept along by, the fanfare.

Chat to Shane Stapleton on Twitter @shanesaint