Gaelic: Dublin due to fulfil destiny
Blues can beat Donegal and end their semi-final misery
HOW many times have we seen it written about the Dublin footballers? Their next outing is always the most important match -- until they win, and the next one comes along.
So it is with Pat Gilroy's Holy Grail chasers as they count down the minutes to tomorrow's Croke Park rendevouz with Donegal.
And yet this time, the cliché carries a ring of truth because this really is a defining game, a watershed moment in the development of this team.
For the likes of Stephen Cluxton, Barry Cahill and Alan Brogan, the prospect of knuckling down for Dublin's dawn chorus training regime next January after a fifth All-Ireland semi-final defeat would -- surely -- fill them with dread.
Suffice to say, these elder Sky Blue statesmen have endured their bellyful of late August heartbreak. They've lost four semi-finals to Armagh (2002), Mayo ('06), Kerry ('07) and Cork (last year) by a cumulative margin of just five points.
Now, Gilroy was correct yesterday when pointing out that this latest semi-final is hardly "make-or-break" for a defence with an average age of 22.
For all that, there comes a tipping point in a team's evolvement when they either push on or momentum stalls, perhaps fatally. Tomorrow's semi-final has that look about it.
Twelve months ago, a new-look Dublin team was still coming to terms with the system imposed by Gilroy in radical response to the '09 Kerry debacle. They were also facing a battle-hardened Cork team with far more August/September experience.
And still Dublin could/should have beaten them. Today, Gilroy's men are further down the development road. The system has been fine-tuned to a point where Dublin are more fluid and accomplished in their ability to switch from defence to counter-attack.
Their forward line can no longer be pigeon-holed as Bernard Brogan and five AN Others -- partly because the younger Brogan isn't quite shooting the lights out à la 2010, partly because his older brother Alan has been a consistent font of energetic excellence all summer, but primarily because Dublin now present a multi-pronged attacking threat.
True, it's unreasonable to expect Dublin's Mr Mercurial -- Diarmuid Connolly -- to score seven points from play. For starters, that doesn't happen every day. For seconds, unlike Tyrone that night, Donegal's defence don't do light-touch regulation.
But if Connolly can deliver a performance of substance, chipping in with a few points and assists instead of reverting to his Kildare/Wexford travails, then that should suffice because Dublin have plenty of other forwards who can contribute to the scoring cause.
At the far end, meanwhile, you have a tenacious defence visibly growing in confidence. It's instructive to look at the Dublin rearguard that leaked 1-24 to Kerry in that aforementioned 2009 quarter-final: none of those six players will start in defensive positions tomorrow, albeit Denis Bastick, Bryan Cullen and Barry Cahill have all been reinvented (and revitalised) by positional switches.
In other words, this defence is relatively unscarred by previous August nightmares. Yes, most of them were in situ for last year's late fadeout against Cork -- but they are now 12 months older and seemingly wiser, based on the reduction of frees conceded in the scoring zone, which ultimately proved their undoing against the Rebels.
So, all things considered, unlike last year, Dublin come to the semi-final table with a clear advantage in terms of experience. On paper, too, if you compare the scoring prowess of the respective attacks, Dublin look in pole position: they are averaging 1-16 this summer compared to Donegal's 1-12.
To lose against such a backdrop would, you suspect, be devastating. Yet this remains a potentially fraught, maybe even frightening, challenge for the 4/11 favourites.
Under the canny year-one stewardship of Jim McGuinness, Donegal have been a team transformed. They won't win many marks for artistic impression and -- guess what? -- they don't care. Public/pundit reaction to their defensive blanket has ranged from "puke football" opprobrium to respectful platitudes aired between gritted teeth.
But the fact remains that Donegal were a soft touch before McGuinness took charge and they are now desperately difficult to break down (they're leaking just 0-10 per game, compared to 0-14 for Dublin). His has been a tactical triumph but also a victory for man-management, because the level of effort and application required to implement the McGuinness masterplan would not be possible unless the entire squad bought into it completely.
Now, though, comes the real litmus test. To an extent, Donegal have got lucky against Tyrone (who failed to press home their total early supremacy), against Derry (who were nobbled by the Bradleys' double-whammy of torn cruciates) and against Kildare (what if that goal had been rightly awarded?).
Tomorrow, you suspect, they will need more than luck: they'll have to perform out of their skins and hope Dublin's summer peaked with that beguiling quarter-final demolition of Tyrone.
They must also nullify Dublin's penchant for explosive starts, because Donegal don't look programmed to reel in a six-point deficit. If Plan A has to be abandoned after 20 minutes, you will know the Ulster champions are in trouble.
Chances are, it won't pan out that way and this initially threatens to be a tactical war of attrition -- a close encounter of the claustrophobic kind. But at some stage, the game will open up and while Michael Murphy offers a real and perennial danger, the Blues have more potential match-winners and a greater array of game-changers.
Leaving aside the county's scary propensity for big-match implosions, we think Dublin's semi-final moment has finally arrived.
ODDS: Dublin 4/11, Draw 8/1, Donegal 11/4
DUBLIN: S Cluxton; C O'Sullivan, Rory O'Carroll, M Fitzsimons; J McCarthy, G Brennan, K Nolan; D Bastick, MD Macauley; P Flynn, B Cahill, B Cullen; A Brogan, D Connolly, B Brogan.
DONEGAL: To be announced.