Saturday 1 August 2015

Dublin were favourites and Donegal no-hopers. What could possibly go wrong?

Published 01/09/2014 | 17:35

Ryan McHugh, Donegal, scores his side's first goal, past Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE
Ryan McHugh, Donegal, scores his side's first goal, past Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Dáire Brennan / SPORTSFILE

Donegal travelled to Croke Park yesterday as the biggest no-hopers in semi-final football in the last 20 years.

Not even their own mothers gave them a chance of derailing Jim Gavin's turbo-charged Dublin Express.

The philosophers and the pundits assured us Dublin where a shoe-in for a September tilt at a third Sam Maguire in four years. If we heard it once, we heard it a thousand times.

The only team capable of beating Dublin was the Dublin substitutes.

OK, Donegal had given Dublin a fright in the semi-final in 2011. But Dublin won that one. And are even stronger now. More versatile, with greater strength in depth, a back room team of sports scientists worthy of NASA and, sure, at times this summer hadn't they played like champions-in-waiting.

Going into yesterday's match, all of the statistics were stacked against Donegal. Even their best score of the Championship to date (3-16 against Antrim) was less than every one of Dublin's winning totals in this year's Championship.

What could possibly go wrong?

DOH!

You see it in boxing sometimes. They call it rope-a-dope. The old trick where you lull your opponent into a false sense of security and unleash shock and awe.

Yesterday it was the Dublin supporters who were on the ropes. Bewildered, their sense reeling, they took ages to stagger off Hill 16 at the final whistle. Like emigrants taking one lingering last look at the old homestead, they found it hard to pull themselves away from their Field of Dreams. A place they won't be seeing until 2015. But Jimmy McGuinness had done his worst. Like the crowbar gangs of old, he'd taken away the lintel over the Dublin doorway and watched as dreams crumbled into dust.

For many, it was a tragedy of epic proportions.

Admittedly many of the Donegal supporters were equally shocked. Some couldn't believe their luck.

"This was supposed to be the team that couldn't be beaten," said one lad.

"I wish I'd followed my brother's example and put a hundred euro on Donegal at 7-1 to win today."

It had been a bizarre day. Dublin fans half-expected Donegal to pull something unexpected out of the hat. One lad heard a rumour that Donegal would run out to warm-up in front of the Hill.

"No," said his mate. "They'll try to take out Stephen Cluxton. He directs a lot of the Dublin traffic."

A third fan predicted, "They'll have a Dublin player sent off."

None of us knew it was going to be much worse than that.

Watching the play, the men in yellow jerseys swarmed towards the ball like something you'd see under a microscope. Like a virus attempting to overpower the host cells. For Dublin supporters it was scary as Donegal came from being five points behind to nicking a slender one point lead at half-time.

But worse was to come.

Five minutes into the second half they had another goal.

Donegal appeared nervous early on. Now it was Dublin's turn. But the lads gave it their all. Unfortunately there's no inoculation against Donegal's energy-sapping, spirit-draining style of play.

Afterwards Dublin manager Jim Gavin had the glazed eyes of a man suffering from a bad dose of hay-fever.

"I couldn't question the Dublin players' determination, commitment and resolve," he said. "I couldn't fault the effort of the Dublin players. It was a fully deserved victory for Donegal. They went hard at us. We were fully prepared."

The immediate aftermath of such a shock, and shocking, defeat is not the time for clinical analysis.

"It was just one of those days," shrugged Gavin.

Jimmy McGuinness might be about as popular as Oliver Cromwell with Dublin supporters (I'm exaggerating here. But only slightly) but he wasn't crowing after his county's sensational win.

"I agreed with the odds," he admitted. "Dublin had answered every question asked of them. They've showed the quality they have. We prepared and tried to get our performance right."

As we strolled down Jones's Road, it dawned on us. This is Reality Football. And Dublin are out.

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