Vincent Hogan: Distinct feeling of a phoney war as Dubs ease into final
We sit discussing a game of football, but it has the feel of a burned-out charade.
Dublin-Donegal bore all the tumult of a book toppling to a library floor. It had our attention for a single heartbeat perhaps but, thereafter, we watched it through bleary eyes, recognising in it the emptiness of two teams just killing time.
Donegal looked like boys who hadn't really factored another game into their April schedule and, accordingly, came to Croke Park with vacation faces on. They played without intensity or any real structural coherence, a repudiation of all they are supposed to stand for. And against Dublin that's a bit like making faces at a grizzly while your shirt's caught in a tree.
"Definitely harmless enough I suppose in the greater scheme of things" sighs Rory Gallagher quietly. "It was played at a fairly pedestrian pace even in the first-half when it was fairly competitive but, look, the reality is the last twenty minutes were a non-event."
Little wonder they're doing away with these dilatory drills next year. There will be no League semi-finals and, on this evidence, they won't be broadly mourned.
So we sit discussing a game of football in that cold little auditorium under the Hogan Stand and, frankly, we might as well be chatting about the ozone layer, about coastal erosion, about something vast and deep and faintly unquantifiable that requires us to lean back in chairs, put hands behind our heads and blow out cheeks at the awful gravity of it all. Because there's surely one question rattling in most heads here.
Were Donegal absolutely trying?
"We came down to give it our best shot" stresses Gallagher (pictured) unconvincingly. "There's no doubt about that. But at the end of the day, just because we were in a league semi-final, didn't change our preparations overall. Don't get me wrong we wanted to perform better than we did. But there wasn't the same tactical focus as you would do for another game."
Break that down then. Decode it. Run it beneath an operating theatre light. Either way, you come up with the same conclusion. This wasn't exactly Donegal going for broke. How could it be?
Because their League has curdled into something, from the outside at least, that looks concerning. Half a dozen cornerstone figures look to be running on deadeningly high-mileage legs, while some of the younger players look like this altitude might over-stretch them. And Michael Murphy can't quite master the miracle of bi-location.
To begin with, they settled their captain on the edge of the Hill-end 'square', James McCarthy keeping him company. For nine minutes, Murphy and Patrick McBrearty sat waiting for a reason to run, but their nearest team-mates were, invariably, 70 yards away, running around in busy defensive phalanxes.
Then Paddy Andrews kicked Dublin's third point from a tight angle and, at 0-1 to 0-3 down, Donegal decided they needed their captain back in the engine room.
The Dubs, mind, weren't exactly moving with any compelling rhythm. If anything, they looked faintly bored by the exercise, that boredom breeding a gentle torpor in the stadium. Leading 0-11 to 0-6 at the mid-point, their fourth consecutive League final appearance under Jim Gavin was no longer up for serious debate and it was as good as written in parchment 54 seconds after the resumption when Bernard Brogan rolled home the game's only goal.
It was created by a gorgeous looped pass from Philly McMahon that undressed the Donegal full back-line in a way, you suspect, would be considered unpardonable by Gallagher come high summer.
Therein lay the uneasy sense of being witnesses to something almost fake here. For if Donegal are as they looked yesterday, Gallagher will need magic hands to make them relevant this summer. Only two players, McBrearty and Martin McElhinney, managed points from play and even the normally indestructible Murphy looked profligate to the point of recklessness, spilling five wides in the second-half alone.
Even Gavin had to concede that the last quarter "kinda fizzled out". He suggests, not unreasonably, that Donegal's focus might already be on "a lot of work" for an eight weeks run-up to the Ulster Championship. Perhaps they are plotting something.
Dublin had no Diarmuid Connolly (nothing wrong with the St. Vincents' man according to his manager, just not selected), yet cruised to a 10-point win that might have been double that had they chosen to be more blood-thirsty.
A wonderful Dean Rock ball put Paul Mannion in for a second-half goal chance, but Mark Anthony McGinley batted the shot away for a '45' and John Small's 48th minute shot then caromed off Neil McGee's boot up over his own crossbar.
With just under ten minutes remaining, faintly sarcastic "ole" shouts came rolling down off the 'Hill. It was all a little constrained and artificial then, albeit Dublin will, at least, have something to measure themselves against in the final against Kerry. But Donegal?
They started this League like a team programmed for the most dramatic makeover, scoring for fun. They ended it like men whose bus was parked on a double-yellow outside of Croker.
What were we to read in them?
"We have to take it on the chin, the defeats are there" sighs Ryan McHugh. "We can't turn back the clock as much as we'd like to. We just have to plan our best now and get ready for Antrim or Fermanagh.
"The League's a great competition but Championship's where it's at. That's what we pride ourselves on. We feel we're a very good championship team. We're going to have to knuckle down now and get back to the drawing-board. We had a great start to the League but a very poor finish."
He agrees that they "probably didn't put as much emphasis" on this game as they might a Championship collision.
That much we had figured.