It wasn’t a championship encounter last night at Headquarters but for February fare it was as good as it gets for intensity. There was plenty of quality on show too with some fine scores on either side but ultimately it was Donegal’s profligacy and indiscipline that led to a five-point defeat.
Above the steps leading up to the Cusack Stand, there’s a huge banner featuring the great and the good of the GAA and for the last few years Bernard Brogan has been the centrepiece; now though there’s a new banner for 2015 and our own Michael Murphy is the main man. It’s a reminder of Donegal’s place in Gaelic Football right now - we’re at the top table and despite almost every pundit in the land tipping a two horse race for honours this season between Kerry and Dublin, they would be unwise to write off last year’s runners-up.
Murphy lived up to his main man billing with a wonderful display of point taking, vision, awareness and selfless work ethic. Within thirty seconds of both the first half and second half starting, he split the posts – the first a beautiful effort off his less favoured left side.
The usual debate was raised during the week about where Michael should be stationed after he played around midfield for the opening half in Ballybofey; he spent the majority of last night inside at full forward but if he sees a run to be tracked or a tackle to be made he doesn’t wait for someone else to do the job, he does it himself. During the first half, Christy Toye was down injured in front of the Hill goal having taken a hefty bang; as he lay prone on the ground, he was out of position as Dublin counter attacked up the field. His captain didn’t need anyone to tell him what was needed - immediately Murphy sprinted seventy yards back to midfield to take his team mate’s place.
That’s captaincy, that’s leadership and that’s why he is the country’s best player.
The full forward versus deeper argument in itself gives Rory Gallagher a trump card in that opposition teams have to have two plans to combat Murphy. If he’s left on the edge of the square all the time, he will invariably be double teamed and while that might leave space for others, the others aren’t Michael Murphy.
When Jack McCaffrey burst through to score the match winning goal with a stunning finish, it was Michael who was beside him trying to get a tackle in; in truth that was when he should have taken a black card for the team and stopped McCaffrey in his tracks. He lasted about another five minutes before the inevitable card came; Michael had played close to the edge throughout the game and it was no surprise that he didn’t make it to the final whistle.
All over the field there were fierce battles being fought and the sheer spite and dislike the two teams have for one another was very evident. There were late hits, dirty strokes and huge physicality from both sides and referee Maurice Deegan seemed to lose control in the last quarter.
There weren’t too many changes from the joust with Derry last week; Eamonn Doherty came in from the start and had a solid enough outing while Karl Lacey was re-directed to wing forward. The imperious Four Masters man saw plenty of ball and looks to be in tip-top shape which is a huge plus and aside from a few mis-cues with the boot he performed well and was a constant thorn in Dublin’s side. Martin O’Reilly played a deeper role this week, reverting back to his more customary half forward spot; he put in another good shift and, along with midfielder Hugh McFadden, has forced his way into the manager’s thinking for when the bigger challenges come around.
Paul Durcan’s woes continued with a loose kick out leading to the opening goal for the Dubs; a clatter from Karl Lacey in then trying to prevent the goal-bound shot from Cormac Costello led to a knock on the head and Michael Boyle coming in to replace him. The Termon net-minder did well for the most part on his kick-outs; one late effort that didn’t clear the twenty-one yard line led to a throw ball, as well as a bollocking from Mark McHugh. Mark and younger brother Ryan were excellent, both constantly offered themselves as ball carriers and gave support to others; they seemed to be well fired up for the game and carried the fight to Dublin, never taking a backward step.
The kick out strategy was interesting with Donegal again, as they did last week, trying to cut out the short variety as much as possible. Dublin on the other hand refused to go long as Donegal made sure the wings were covered and hence cut off their usual wide receivers.
McFadden came on a lot from last week’s encounter and was a much greater presence around the middle third. He got through plenty of ball last week but this time around he got more involved in tackling and breaking and indeed came in for quite amount of attention from blue jerseys as they set upon some new blood. McFadden handled it well and can be delighted with his night’s work. It was the Killybegs man’s withdrawal, with his namesake Colm joining the action, that actually led to Donegal’s downfall.
After Kevin McManamon got a second yellow card, which in truth could have been a red following a forearm smash on the elder McHugh, the manager decided to go for broke somewhat. With an extra man, his deep lying midfielder was replaced by a forward in the hope that more scores would follow. In response Jim Gavin brought on fresh legs, McCaffrey amongst them, to run at the newly exposed rearguard. The goal put paid to any chance of salvaging league points from this encounter and just like the battle last August, the team that got the goals, got the win.
Up until then Dublin remained in front largely due to the free taking of Dean Rock; time and again a lazy Donegal hand went into a tackle and conceded a free and worse was the number of times the referee brought the ball forward into score able positions following too much chat from the visitors. Granted, Deegan’s decision making was frustrating both sides but at the highest level discipline is a vital component in winning games and the players should know better. The hosts went almost half an hour without scoring from play and yet were never behind – that statistic tells its own story.
Overall, Rory and his management team will be fairly satisfied with the opening fortnight of league action. What was clear from last night is that the teams do not like each other very much and that Donegal have got inside Dublin’s heads. The Dubs are still shocked that they were so roundly beaten in that last four contest and it is eating away at them. The stall they set out with last night was entirely a reaction to that game. John Small sat in the centre back pocket and tried to block the middle channel. They crowded the middle third. They daren’t kick long from restarts. They’re spooked.
Donegal kicked numerous bad wides into the Canal End goal in the second half but when Dublin were shooting that way in the opening period they constantly snatched at chances, rushed their kicks for fear of a gold jersey closing them down. In the semi-final they needed a series of wonder points from Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn to get ahead but last night they had many simpler opportunities yet were anxious and took bad decisions when they could have worked the ball into better positions.
So as we head into a short break in league action, it is tempting to peek ahead to the Summer; if these two giants cross swords again there won’t be a bookmaker on the planet who’d be offering 8/1 on a Donegal win. We know that we’re one of the main players, the bookies know it and most importantly – Dublin know it.