It was a case of back to the future for Donegal last night as the all out defence model that was inflicted upon the public in 2011 made its re-appearance. The game of Gaelic football survived after that seminal day five years ago and despite a poor spectacle in Croke Park, the game will survive again.
After Roscommon posted a total of 1-19 on the O’Donnell Park scoreboard last time out, Rory Gallagher made sure there would be no repeat against an even more formidable attack. It was an unashamed and unapologetic display of doggedness right from the off – under no circumstances were Donegal going to give away a big score.
We’ve seen this tactic from numerous teams in various sports over the years; after a bad beating or a chastening experience teams revert to type, go back to basics and get their defence sorted. That is the foundation upon which the rest can be built. Chelsea often did it under Jose Mourinho while the English rugby team revert to a forwards-orientated game when times are tough. Even in hurling, the aristocrats in Kilkenny, after conceding 1-28 against Tipperary in the 2014 All-Ireland final, made sure that the replay would see a big reduction in their concession rate. Keeping Tipperary to sixteen scores helped bring Liam McCarthy back to his usual winter resting spot along the Nore.
Donegal didn’t win the game of course last night but it wasn’t because they conceded too much; the trick to playing the blanket effectively is getting the balance right to allow you to create and score at the other end. Some awful wides, juvenile shot selection and a lack of shape up front cost Donegal dear.
Donegal only scored one point in the last half hour; Rory or anyone else doesn't need to be told that that isn't good enough to win big games. The manager though will take certain plus points out of the game while also acknowledging that there’s nothing much won in March.
The Dubs had their homework done on Donegal’s kick outs and pressed high in the hope of forcing the ball long. It has been a recurring theme this year, even in the victories gained, that the team are struggling to win possession around midfield.
A change in goalkeeper was made last night but in truth Mark Anthony McGinley didn’t fare too much better than Peter Boyle has up until now – the ball just isn’t sticking when it goes out long. The simple answer to that is to go short but Dublin penned Donegal in at The Hill in the opening half and with a breeze to play against as well they rarely made much headway.
McGinley was constantly berating his team mates out the field to move and show for the ball but to no avail. With at least another game left in this league campaign might we see another change in goal? Perhaps the most in-form net-minder currently in a Donegal jersey at present is Danny Rodgers. The Dungloe stopper is the incumbent U21 ‘keeper and should also be in the mix with McGinley and Boyle for keeping Paul Durcan’s jersey warm. For now, Rodgers has the small matter of an Ulster semi-final battle with Tyrone on Wednesday night.
Donegal’s plan worked to a large degree in the first half, suffocating Dublin and only a few well worked scores from the boys in blue troubled the umpires. At the other end though, things did not work so well. Time and again there was no one in front of the ball when attacks reached halfway. Conversely, Leo McLoone had the unenviable task of being the sole target man with several Dublin players for company. At least if Paddy McBrearty was the nominated lone striker, he might have troubled the defence with his pace but Leo isn’t that kind of player. A big, strong ball player, he only hits top speed after working through the gears whereas the game plan called for a more impish, wriggly forward.
McBrearty was eventually moved in and registered a trademark point on the turn. Rory Kavanagh, Michael Murphy and the excellent Eamon McGee also notched fine points but the accuracy illustrated by those scores was all too fleeting. Kavanagh, Odhran MacNiallais and the McHughs were guilty of some poor striking; calm, measured build up was often the order of the day instead of some of the horrid ballooned efforts witnessed.
At one stage in the first half with Donegal two points in arrears, Murphy took an opportunity to tie his boot laces and that halt in play took the sting out of Dublin’s momentum. Donegal got a couple of scores back and took the lead briefly following another scoring spurt after the restart.
Murphy rallied the troops as best he could and put in a tireless shift but his departure on a double yellow seemed to signal the end of any hopes of collecting a league point or two.
The second bookable offences, which saw Murphy and James McCarthy shown the line, left both teams at fourteen a side but the difference in departing personnel was huge. Donegal’s heads dropped somewhat while Dublin injected more pace into the game and managed to get in behind the Donegal backline.
While a lot of similarities were evident with that 2011 semi-final, this game ended more like the 2012 league clash; that was a tight, cagey affair but Donegal were well in the game thanks largely to the work of Murphy both in defence and attack. His premature departure that night, due to a knee injury that would keep him out of that year’s championship opener, also signalled the end of Donegal hopes.
It is often said that Donegal are over-reliant on Michael and at times that notion is laughable – why wouldn’t you rely on the country’s best player? Monaghan’s dependence on Conor McManus gets similar coverage but the Clontibret ace is the best finisher in the game so it makes sense that he finishes the majority of his team’s chances. Reliance on a big player is fine within reason and obviously teams also need to have alternative plans.
Where the over-reliance theory does have credence is when the star men mentioned above aren’t there. Players cant rely on Michael Murphy when he’s not on the field of play and the countless instances last night of players abdicating shooting responsibility onto someone else was disappointing and had a big effect on the game.
All sports are about decision making. In football, every player makes hundreds of decisions in a game and every time they receive the ball their mind debates about holding onto the ball, taking a man on, soloing, holding possession or shooting. The higher the level, the less time you have to make these decisions. On too many occasions last night we saw Donegal players make bad decisions in passing to McBrearty or Murphy while they themselves were in space in front of goal. There are top class footballers wearing green and gold but offensively they are not making top class decisions.
Not having Michael on the field for the closing stages, or indeed Neil Gallagher to bring on from the bench, robbed Donegal of a chance to seriously test out Dublin’s full back line. The decision by Rory O’Carroll to leave the panel and go travelling leaves a big hole in the champion’s defence but that perceived porosity wasn’t put to the test with Donegal having no target man option.
Dublin ran out winners and there was no doubt about the result following Philly McMahon’s well taken goal. Rory and Jim Gavin though would both have been annoyed with some of the sloppiness on show particularly the hand passing from either side.
Hand passing is seen as a fairly basic skill but it still has to be executed properly. A lot of what the Croker crowd saw was of a low standard not expected at inter-county level. Passes were played to the man on the wrong side, too close to his marker. Others weren’t going straight onto a team mates’ chest and were instead hopping once, maybe twice before reaching their target. It is only a small detail but it takes the receiver that extra second to get the ball in control and amongst the big boys seconds matter.
The blueprint adopted by Donegal coupled with the result didn’t make for good viewing but in spite of all the probable negative coverage that the match will generate, this was two of the country's biggest going head to head. Come summertime they will still be two of the biggest gunning for glory.
The Dubs march on and are aiming for a fourth league title in succession, a phenomenal record. The Hill enjoyed cheering every Dublin pass near the end of the game but as Mickey Harte once observed, there’s always another day.