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Apocalypse then!

EVERYONE has their own memory of the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal.

For Barry Cahill, it was at the very beginning and he knew then the terms of engagement were quite apart from anything he had experienced before.

Standing beside Karl Lacey at centre-forward (the only year he played the role, as it happened), no sooner had Maurice Deegan tossed the match ball amid the four midfielders than Mark McHugh and Ryan Bradley; Donegal's numbers 10 and 12, had hurriedly evacuated their spots and sprinted 60 metres to redeploy right in front of Dublin's full-forward line.

"We'd spoken in the couple of weeks leading up to the game that one way to combat a blanket defence was to move the ball as quickly as possible, usually by foot, 45 to 50 yard kick passes up the pitch," Cahill explains.

tactic

"Straight away, two or three seconds into the game, they had two players situated in front of Bernard Brogan in the pocket, in that space. So that tactic of ours was gone straight away because they already had their defensive system set up.

"It's not something we'd experienced before," he adds.

Or at least the severity of Donegal's devotion to constriction was neoteric. The logic was simple, though.

"Dublin were a great team that year," says Kevin Cassidy for whom the match would be his last in a Donegal short after a subsequent falling out with McGuinness.

"So Jim looked at our panel and said he can't afford to go man to man because these boys will blow us away."

In short, the plan was, as Cassidy outlines: "to retreat and force Dublin to shoot from awkward angles, force them into a place where they hadn't been before."

Half-time, Dublin 0-2 Donegal 0-4.

It worked, perfectly. Bernard Brogan was Dublin's only scorer and both of his points were frees. Around 20 minutes in, the boos rang out around Croke Park and at the blow for the break, they were encored with gusto.

"I think we played into Donegal's hands," admits Cahill now.

frustration

"We started taking a few crazy shots from 50, 60 yards out, taking pot shots from the end line.

"You probably got a sense of it from the crowd as well that there was a lot of frustration."

Partly, it was the annoyance of Dublin supporters with their own team. The famous picture of Colm McFadden standing with six Dublin defenders for company tells a story.

Many wondered what service Pat Gilroy's wing-backs were providing staying true to their traditional habitats when Dublin's forwards were so outnumbered and having such little scoring joy.

"But they weren't standing around doing nothing," explains Mickey Whelan, one of Gilroy's selectors.

"They were focused all the time. They knew why they were there. We had practiced it, done it week-in/week-out. That was a very focused group."

For his part, McGuinnness says the plan was never intended to draw out Dublin's half backs.

"We knew they wouldn't," he says. "Their system was very well defined at that stage.

"Mickey Whelan and Pat Gilroy had put a lot of emphasis on that system - it came from basketball I believe.

"It was about having a zonal defence with the six back and then letting the ball in.

When you put it to Whelan that the Donegal plan worked, certainly in that first 35 minutes, his response is stoic.

"It worked as long as we allowed it to work," though not everyone in the Dublin dressing-room was quite so certain.

"There was a defining moment," recalls Paul Flynn, "when (Colm) McFadden had a shot at goal and Cluxton saved and it went over the bar. If that had gone in, the game would have been different."

That chance came in the first minute of the second-half and had McFadden hit the net, Donegal's lead would stood at 1-4 to 0-2.

But tactically, Whelan and Gilroy had already initiated the change that would ultimately end Dublin's previous misery in All-Ireland semi-finals.

"We probably didn't use the wing backs as well as we could have," recalls Cahill.

"They were getting on a lot of ball but it was 100 yards from goal, very deep. It was a very slow and laboured build up. We were going sideways and back ways with the ball.

clusters

"I think going out in the second-half we decided we were going to try to run the ball a lot more, sort of run in groups and clusters. If you have three or four lads running together, off each others' shoulders so that if you are coming up against a wall of Donegal defenders that you're able to slip maybe a couple of one-twos."

Thus eventually, enough cracks appeared in the wall for Dublin to pile through.

They had withstood and conquered a tactical, physical and psychophysical bombardment.

You couldn't but conclude that day was the making of them.


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