THE backdrop to this league encounter was a match which at the very least drew colourful reaction. In last year's All-Ireland semi-final, a game Donegal could well have won, their brand of defensive football that had 13 players deeply entrenched divided public opinion: you either found it strangely compelling or you deemed it offensive to your noble football instincts.
Did you qualify as a snob in not admiring the way Donegal played their football? Or did it really matter what you thought -- it was happening anyway.
Last night they locked horns again and the crowd was eager to see how that tactical maelstrom of defensive football panned out. Donegal were more cavalier, but that is not to say they were more effective than in their last engagement with Dublin. The final score is a profound distortion of the contest; they were much closer in reality and the two Dublin goals came in injury-time.
Yet for most of the match, Donegal never really looked like winning. At half-time, four points adrift and struggling for scores, they were already in bother and lacking imagination. In fairness, they upped their game. Michael Murphy kicked a monster free and one from play just as good, Neil McGee clipped over another and when Murphy was fouled, Patrick McBrearty converted to level at 10 points apiece.
Dublin, who suffered their first defeat of the league in Newry a week ago, responded well. Each time Donegal breathed down their necks they seemed to find a new gear and they were never fell into arrears. Kevin McManamon, who finished with three points, and one of their lively new recruits, Dean Kelly, set them free of Donegal again.
When Christy Toye and Murphy had Donegal level again with 15 minutes left Dublin might have panicked, but they held their nerve. Stephen Cluxton kicked a free, Paul Flynn hit one of the best scores of the night and then Murphy went off with an injury. Lacking Murphy and two behind entering the final 10 minutes, Donegal were long odds to get anything out of it. Dean Rock added another to put three between them and Dublin would have been disappointed to lose a match from that position. They did call on Cluxton to make a fine save from McBrearty but those chances were rare and Dublin sealed it with late goals from Bryan Cullen and Diarmuid Connolly.
Donegal's slow start ultimately had them chasing the game throughout. They conceded three points before they had a shot at the Dublin goal and by half-time had some work to do. Murphy did most of the scoring, while no other forward scored in the first half -- their other two points were from their wing-backs.
Dublin, too, looked more likely to score a goal. A neat interchange between McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley opened up Donegal's congested backline in the first half but the former's shot was weak -- he looked to have some claims for a penalty; the referee paid no heed. Eamon Fennell broke and got his hand to a pass across goal from Kevin Nolan, but Paul Durcan pulled off an excellent reflex save. The chance came from one of Cluxton's pinpoint kickouts, picking out Ger Brennan and starting one of the better moves of the game. The play was a great deal more open than its championship predecessor and by the 15th minute Dublin led 0-6 to 0-3. Nine points in 15 minutes going on the previous year was a score-fest but it slackened off on the way in to the interval.
Donegal won plenty of their own kickouts yet they found it difficult to prise open scoring opportunities. Without Murphy they were lost. While they had him, they played their best football in the third quarter after the interval. Who knows what might have happened had he stayed on the field.
Scorers -- Dublin: D Connolly 1-3 (0-2 fs), B Cullen 1-1, K McManamon 0-3, A Brogan, E Fennell, MD Macauley, J Cooper, T Quinn, D Kelly, P Flynn, S Cluxton (f), D Rock 0-1 each. Donegal: M Murphy 0-6 (0-3 fs, 1 '45'), A Thompson, L McLoone, N McGee, C Toye, P McBrearty (f), D Walsh, M McElhinney 0-1 each
Dublin: S Cluxton; C O'Sullivan, R O'Carroll, P McMahon; J Cooper, G Brennan, K Nolan; MD Macauley, E Fennell; P Flynn, A Brogan, B Cullen; T Quinn, D Connolly, K McManamon
Subs: S Murray for Brennan (inj 24), D Rock for Brogan (30), D Kelly for Quinn (h-t), C Dias for Cooper (59)
Donegal: P Durcan; F McGlynn, N McGee, P McGrath; A Thompson, K Lacey, L McLoone; C Toye, N Gallagher; M McHugh, R Bradley, M O'Reilly; M McElhinney, M Murphy, P McBrearty
Subs: D Walsh for O'Reilly (30), E McGee for Toye (53), A Hanlon for Murphy (inj 59), D McLaughlin for Bradley (64)
Referee: E Kinsella (Laois)