Seldom has a county managed to arouse such heated debate and controversy as Donegal did in a little over an hour last Sunday.
By the time their All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin was over, most people were glad that the Dubs won and that the All-Ireland final would be a better game as a result. It has left Donegal a bit isolated in much the same way as the Meath team I played on were after the All-Ireland final in 1988. Time heals many wounds, even if some from the past have lingered, just as Donegal will find it will take a while to shed their present image.
Much of the criticism of Donegal is merited. The idea of adopting a very defensive system is their business and Jimmy McGuinness made a very strong case for the system on the basis of where Donegal have come from. That is all well and good but it was the total lack of ambition when the game was up for grabs which galled most people, including Donegal supporters. In the end, the system failed them. Players were adopting such a negative mindset that they seemed unable to change from it. Even when going behind they did not seem to have either the inclination or willingness to throw the kitchen sink at the game when a final place was within touching distance.
McGuinness wanted to get away from the give-it-a-lash-and-hope-for-the-best approach. This was a losing formula in the past. Yet there comes a time when it has to be death or glory. Donegal didn't even have the satisfacton of giving it their best shot and when the players and management go away and think about it, they will realise it too, even if they won't admit it publicly. This is not a rookie Donegal outfit. There are plenty of mature men who have been around for a long time and yet seemed unable to see or seize a great opportunity which opened up in front of them.
The word from Donegal was that there was no Plan B. Well, there was a need for one. How any side could expect to win without a semblance of an attacking plan is beyond belief. The absence of it became more apparent after Donegal had the extra man -- no attack, no adventure, nothing.
It was said that this was the Donegal style all year but that is not the case. I saw them play Meath in the league in Navan and they played very attractive and quite open football that day and won easily. They employed Michael Murphy at full-forward, kicked in a lot of ball to him and he won it and scored beautiful points. On that day Donegal looked a side with a big future, breaking out of defence at pace and mixing up short passing with good long kicks.
In the league final against Laois they became more defensive and this process was exaggerated until it reached a nadir last week. It seemed based on a philosophy that they were not as good as the opposition and therefore must reduce the game to another level. This negative mindset cannot be shaken off during a game.
So while Jim McGuinness has proved himself a fantastic coach in being able to get a group of players to play in a certain way -- whether you like it or not -- it is a fundamentally flawed approach and will never win the All-Ireland. I would expect a more adventurous approach in the future because Donegal have better players than even they seem to realise.
What will worry the Dublin management from this game is that even though they expected this defensive system from Donegal, they failed miserably to cope with it for most of the game. The inability to find a way through for most of the match was worrying considering the task ahead and kicking the ball in to a full-forward line in the first half which was heavily outnumbered showed a serious lack of being able to adapt, something all good players need to do when faced with unusual situations.
Dublin persisted with their own defensive system when they really needed to get more men into attack. With Michael Murphy operating at midfield, Donegal were never going to get many scores, yet the Dublin half-backs or wing-forwards rarely pressed forward. They were caught in a very defensive mindset too.
This was a game where the mood of the crowd was not very healthy. The discomfort of the Dublin players for all of the first half was summed up by the booing of Donegal in possession. It reflected a growing sense of unease in the Dublin ranks on the field and was transmitted to their supporters. It only dissipated when the scores started to come in the final quarter. The difference between patience and panic may be only a few minutes. I have often played in games which turned out alright but could have gone either way as players struggled to hold their heads and keep playing a certain way.
A number of things changed the course of this game but the introduction of Kevin McManamon, the loss of Karl Lacey of Donegal and the sending-off were central. Lacey was a huge loss, McManamon caused problems by running in straight lines and he must wonder how he has not got much game-time since a very good league final against Cork back in April.
Then of course there was the sending-off. Diarmuid Connolly was an increasingly peripheral and frustrated figure at this time, and the actions of a few Donegal
players were cynical, as they had been earlier too in holding up the game as much as possible. Yet ultimately a dismissal, which would not have happened if Marty Boyle had not dived, helped Dublin win the game. It created a more aggressive attacking approach and they also got a few easy frees. Justice, many would call it.
In the end, Pat Gilroy was a relieved man. Nobody could ever contemplate winning a big game with eight points and only two from play. We certainly live in strange times. Gilroy has done a magnificent job with Dublin but he would understand very well Wellington's sentiments after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo when he said, "it was a damned close run thing".
Now the Dublin management have to contend with a circus before the final. Locking the players away from it will not be easy and for a player, trying to get the balance right between enjoying the build-up and not being distracted by it, is much more difficult in Dublin than in Kerry or anywhere else. Ultimately, though, players are remembered by their performances on the field on the big days.
Tickets will be a massive issue in Dublin. There is a traditional way in the GAA for tickets to be distributed to every club and parish in the country as the final belongs to everyone. This is a time to change that. Dublin are by far the biggest supporters and the old rules should be thrown away. Dublin should get at least 40,000 tickets, Kerry 20,000 and the rest could be farmed out in the traditional manner. It would be fairer to everyone.
Sunday Indo Sport