Dubs hurdle defensive wall to earn long-awaited shot at Sam
Dublin 0-8Donegal 0-6
THE essential matter is that Dublin are back in the All-Ireland football final for the first time in 16 years, but that wasn't the principal source of discussion as Croke Park emptied its crowd of 81,436 onto the streets yesterday evening.
Instead, the public were left to ponder one of the strangest games the championship has produced for a long time, one where eight points (only two from open play) were enough to win and where the losers were in contention right to the finish, despite scoring just six points.
That's far from the end of the curious tale. Not since 1956, when Galway scored eight points against Tyrone, was such a low total enough to win an All-Ireland semi-final and that game was, of course, played over 60 minutes. And still the items of curiosity continue to stack up.
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton was his side's second highest scorer; their starting six forwards scored just one point from open play between them; Dublin's first score from open play didn't come until the 60th minute; and Donegal didn't register a single score after the 44th minute.
Truly, a strange game in which the texture was established by Donegal, who locked into defensive mode in a manner probably never previously witnessed. Even when they were trailing by two points late on, they had only two players in the Dublin half of the field as they attempted to plot a recovery plan.
It was based on the same premise they had applied throughout, funnelling back in defensive banks to block the channels for the Dublin attack while using the shortest of handpassing routines to crab forward.
Donegal players repeatedly looped around each other, constantly off-loading in a keep-ball sequence which often involved as many backward as forward passes. It was dismal to watch but Donegal were in the business of trying to reach the All-Ireland final, not pleasing the masses.
Their tactics worked too for three-quarters of the match and when they took a three-point lead (0-6 to 0-3) into the third quarter, their supporters were beginning to believe that the defensive emphasis might frustrate Dublin into submission.
However, there were subtle signs that change was under way. Kevin McManamon, a half-time replacement for Barry Cahill, was imposing his running game on Donegal in a manner which none of his colleagues had done in a sterile first half, while Donegal's error rate also began to increase.
Whereas they had succeeded in holding onto possession very effectively in the first half, their handling and passing became less secure, presumably because their energy levels had dropped. It was hardly surprising as their work-rate for the first 50 minutes was inhumanly high.
However, it's probably impossible to maintain that level of intensity for the full 70 minutes and, ever so gradually, Donegal began to present openings to Dublin. Bernard Brogan (free) and Stephen Cluxton ('45') pared the lead back to a point by the 54th minute before McManamon equalised on the hour mark.
Bryan Cullen gave Dublin the lead in the 62nd minute and Brogan closed out the scoring with a pointed free five minutes later. Dublin had lost Diarmuid Connolly to a straight red card in the 58th minute after a linesman alerted the referee to an incident. Connolly was adjudged to have struck Donegal sub Marty Boyle, but TV footage showed it to be very much at the lower end of the scale in terms of being a red-card offence, so the Dublin full-forward could consider himself somewhat unlucky to face the ultimate sanction.
Ironically, his departure appeared to open up space for the rest of the Dublin forwards, leaving the Donegal defence, which had been so imperious in the first half, under much-increased pressure.
It was all so different to the opening half, when Donegal squeezed Dublin to the point of suffocation.
Dublin would have anticipated Donegal's defensive approach but made a poor attempt at counteracting it. Aimless deliveries were picked up quickly and consistently by the massed Donegal rearguard and fed into the recycling chain.
And even when Dublin got into position to shoot, they were let down by inaccuracy, with Alan Brogan off target on no fewer than four occasions.
Surprisingly, Dublin attacked mainly down the centre, where they enjoyed little success as the channels were heavily landmined.
The first 28 minutes produced just four points -- two each -- before Kevin Cassidy and Colm McFadden pointed to leave Donegal leading 0-4 to 0-2 at half-time.
McFadden was Donegal's only target man close to the Dublin goal and he did reasonably well, given that he was surrounded by several defenders.
Donegal stretched their lead immediately after the re-start when McFadden fired over their fifth point from what was a decent goal chance. A goal would have put Donegal five points clear which, in the context of this game, would have been a massive advantage, but his shot flew over the bar.
Still, it gave Donegal the start they wanted and when Bernard Brogan and McFadden swapped points over the next 13 minutes, serious question marks were arising as to whether Dublin had the capacity to work their way through a type of problem they hadn't encountered in previous games.
Ultimately, they managed it through a combination of hard work, patience, increased accuracy and the gradual unravelling of Donegal's game.
Donegal had conceded an average of nine points in the five games which took them to the semi-final and, if repeated, would have assumed that defensive mastery to be adequate to book a place in the All-Ireland final for the first time since 1992.
In fact, they reduced the giveaway to eight points but it came at a cost. Such strict security restricted Dublin's openings but it also seriously reduced Donegal's ability to build a decent score.
Donegal needed to have an expert finisher like Michael Murphy sniping close to the Dublin goal, but the broader demands of the game plan saw him deployed much further out. Like all his colleagues he worked extremely hard but rarely got a strike on goal from open play while he was uncharacteristically wayward from frees, albeit of the long-range variety, in the first half.
Dublin kicked eight wides in the first half but cut it to two in the second period. That too was crucial on a day when Dublin finally sorted out one of the most complex defensive puzzles ever taken into an All-Ireland semi-final.
Scorers -- Dublin: B Brogan 0-4 (4f), S Cluxton 0-2 (1f, 1 '45), K McManamon, B Cullen 0-1 each. Donegal: C McFadden 0-4 (2f), R Bradley, K Cassidy 0-1 each.
Dublin -- S Cluxton 7; C O'Sullivan 7, R O'Carroll 7, M Fitzsimons 7; J McCarthy 6, G Brennan 7, K Nolan 7; D Bastick 6, MD Macauley 7; P Flynn 6, B Cahill 6, B Cullen 6; A Brogan 6, D Connolly 5, B Brogan 7. Subs: P McMahon 7 for O'Carroll (26), K McManamon 8 for Cahill (h-t), E O'Gara 6 for McCarthy (61), E Fennell for Bastick (65), R McConnell for Flynn (67).
Donegal -- P Durcan 6; K Lacey 7, E McGee 7, N McGrath 7; K Cassidy 7, P McGrath 7, A Thompson 7; F McGlynn 7, R Kavanagh 6; R Bradley 6, M McHugh 7, M Murphy 6; C Toye 5, D Walsh 6, C McFadden 7. Subs: M Hegarty 6 for Toye (h-t), M Boyle 5 for Lacey (42), M McElhinney for Hegarty (64), P McBrearty for Boyle (64).
Ref -- M Deegan (Laois)