Sunday 23 July 2017

'A dogfight from start to finish'

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

So the city peers through its fingers and wonders if the coast is clear. Dublin has a September team again and giddiness finds expression like the first plucking of strings in an orchestra pit. Kerry await and, eccentrics that they are, may even be intent on football come Sunday fortnight.

Sentimentalists will, of course, begin excavating a rivalry that existed before the bulk of today's players were even born. No matter. The All-Ireland final looks like a gift from the deities.

Maybe you need to die a little before you truly live and, if so, Dublin will be dangerous now.

What they survived yesterday stoked outrage among many. To some eyes, it was football without a conscience.

Donegal adhere to the fundamentals of pretty basic engineering. Just as you don't build your house on a flood-plain, Jim McGuinness believes you don't play football with the hall door open.

It may not answer the aesthetes' prayer for Gaelic football but, maybe, the emptiness of Donegal's recent past demands their present be selfish.

Whatever, they played a game that looked bereft of ambition or grace. And for long stretches Dublin seemed suffocated by it. Donegal just flooded their own half of the field with bodies, inviting the Dubs to find a way through.

The lust for attrition was palpable.

And for a team that had been doing triple toe-loops in the quarter-final, this asked things of Pat Gilroy's men not ordinarily asked in a public forum. For one whole hour, Dublin did not even raise a flag from play. They were dying.

"Unbelievable," smiled Bernard Brogan afterwards in the dressing-room tunnel. "There were times I was wondering 'Will we get back from this?' I was worried, but I knew we had to stay patient and that we'd get a couple of chances at the end. Players were going to get tired and the game was always going to open up.

"So it was just about sticking in there."

And the mechanics of it? The science of trying to work a football up the aisle of a crowded train? The psychology of not lashing out? Of not corrupting the nation's children?

Brogan chuckled, the illusion of amity breaking out all around now.

"It's not often you see a scoreline of 0-8 to 0-6 in Croke Park," he said. "But it was so tough to break down. We couldn't get our hands on the ball and any time we did get our hands on it, there was three lads batin' us around the place.

"It's very difficult to play against. Obviously, the spectators wouldn't like it, but it's been effective for them (Donegal). I mean it's down to an All-Ireland semi-final and they were very close, so you can't question its effectiveness. They gave us a tough game of football and we were really blessed to get over it.

"But I'd prefer to get out there and play football and go toe-to-toe. And I presume Kerry will be like that as well."

Brogan didn't score from play, nor did his brother Alan, nor indeed Diarmuid Connolly, whose 57th-minute dismissal seemed harsh, given Rory Kavanagh appeared to do to him precisely what the linesman presumably reported Connolly for doing to Marty Boyle -- ie putting a hand to the face.

Maybe seconds earlier, Kevin McManamon had what looked a legitimate goal ruled out after Paul Durcan spilled Alan Brogan's right-wing delivery to the ground.

To be fair to Maurice Deegan, he could have done with a UN peace-keeping squadron at his disposal rather than the rudimentary four umpires and two linesmen.

"A dogfight from start to finish, but pretty much what we expected," sighed Bryan Cullen.

"There was very little football played there, so it was just a matter of getting through it. We did what we had to do. We kept probing, kept trying to ask the questions."

An article in the match programme helpfully reminded the Dubs of their semi-final record. Four contested in the previous 10 years. All narrow defeats.

So when Colm McFadden's wonderful 44th-minute free edged Donegal 0-6 to 0-3 ahead -- given the context of the game -- it felt like a small ocean separated the teams. But McFadden was virtually Donegal's only attacker, Michael Murphy burrowing away in deeper trenches.

Gilroy stood watching it all, arms folded, like a vexed parent.

Maybe 50 minutes in, Donegal selector Rory Gallagher materialised on the field to engage in a little rutting with Dublin players and a light sense of anarchy began to hold sway. Gallagher was eventually hunted away by his own player, McFadden.

But that was the vibe, the dynamic. The game was just an endless factory of trouble.

Yet Donegal had no Plan B if Dublin got ahead and, deep down, that was Gilroy's ace card. The Dublin manager would say later that his half-time team-talk had been one of the easier ones to deliver. "To be honest, we were in exactly the place we thought we'd be," he said.

Patience, ultimately, protected Dublin from meltdown. They just kept tunnelling away and once Cullen's 62nd-minute point went over, the Hill exulted in the knowledge that Donegal's bluff was called.

Gilroy knew what he had seen and tipped his hat to Donegal.

"Look, I think if you have a way that's going to stop good players playing, you have to play to your strengths," he said. "All semi-finals are about is getting over them. We've tried a few times over the last few years and today we had to be really patient.

"It was a very very difficult game and, fair play to Donegal, they made it difficult.

"But I think we showed great patience and composure to see it out. We expected it so we probably weren't as frustrated as maybe people watching were."

Asked if he admired Donegal, Gilroy was unequivocal.

"I totally admire them," he said. "Totally. Why would you go and leave a load of space in front of fellas who kicked 22 points the last day? It was just sensible what they did. You would have to admire them.

"I don't think anyone can just start to try to play that game. Donegal have conditioned themselves to do it. It takes incredible work off the field to do what they did today.

"All that hitting ... it mightn't look pretty to you, but it is very difficult to do. Fair play to them."

The dream final then after a nightmare semi. And a long night on the tiles?

"I've my accountancy finals starting on Tuesday," said Bernard Brogan, "so I'm going home to study. It's not easy. No, no major celebrations for me. Anyway, we'll just lock it down now, go back and do a bit of homework. Kerry are Kerry. It's going to be an unbelievably tough day.

"They've been there, done it all before. They know how to play finals. None of the lads in our team have played in one before, so it's going to be about who wants it more on the day.

"Look, it's a dream come true now. Time to just batten down and really get focused for it and give those Kerry boys a lash."

Better late than never.

Irish Independent

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