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Dublin must 'chisel' a way past Donegal


Dublin’s Kevin McManamon and Donegal’s Ryan McHugh will be key men for their respective counties in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile

Dublin’s Kevin McManamon and Donegal’s Ryan McHugh will be key men for their respective counties in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile

Dublin’s Kevin McManamon and Donegal’s Ryan McHugh will be key men for their respective counties in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile

Revenge isn't a word Jim Gavin will use in any of the various chats with his squad this week.

He's just too pragmatic a manager, and the concept that a negative such as a previous defeat should generate a heightened level of performance against the same opposition totally contradicts his coaching philosophies.

Players are different.

For some, in the back of their minds, that memory festers.

Not that they'll say it publicly but plenty of the Dublin lads have been waiting for this opportunity to try and get one back over Donegal for that All-Ireland semi-final defeat in 2014.


That day stung for a long, long time afterwards. Everything about it.

Our performance. What we expected of ourselves that day. What we expected of ourselves that year.

Only a few hours after it was over, I was informed via social media that I had retired from inter-county football which, you can imagine, came as a bit of a surprise.

But funnily enough, I think the lessons from our 2011 All-Ireland semi-final are slightly more relevant in the context of this Saturday's match.

That was a weirder day.

Definitely, it the worst game of football I ever played in.

We were all over the place in the first half. No-one played well. And it was a day I was happy to see the back of and not look back.

But some of that Dublin team - me included - had lost four All-Ireland semi-finals in our careers without winning one, so we didn't care very much how we got to a final.

People made a lot of Pat Gilroy's defensive system after 2009 but essentially our plan then was to keep six men back at all times and ultimately, that's what won us that game.

Not, clearly, so severe or densely populated as Donegal's approach then, but because we fixed those men to their positions, because we resisted the urge to fling our wing-backs into their double-stitched blanket, they rarely penetrated whenever they broke in ones or twos.

Obviously, their game-plan has moved on in a serious way since then and their transition from defence to attack is what made them the great team they became in the few years after that but I think Jim McGuinness set his team up that day to shell-shock us and until we got in at half-time and got our heads around it a bit, he was largely successful.

We had a think about it at the break and we decided we'd be more patient and stop those pot shots we were snapping at in the first half. Afterwards, when we looked back, we decided if anyone tried that against us again, the time to catch those teams was on the kick-out.

All teams commit a couple of players to trying to win breaking ball on kick-outs and that, in turn, leaves patches of space available for your half-forward line to break into.

To do it effectively, you have to be switched on and play the ball quickly into those spaces and when we came up with a similar style defence again, that's the ball we went after.

By contrast, Dublin will only have one extra man back on Saturday which is still one more than we had there in 2014.

You'd like to think that whatever mistakes Dublin make this time around, they won't be the same ones as two years ago.

Will that be enough?

If Donegal are brave enough to put Michael Murphy at full-forward for a sustained length of time, he's plenty good enough to do damage.

An early goal. A quick flurry of points. Something to shift the dynamic of the match away from Dublin's control.

If there's three or four around him, he'll struggle, which is probably why he spends so much of his time in the Ulster Championship out around the middle.

Question marks

But Murphy versus two? He'll like those odds. And yes, there are question marks over Dublin's full-back line. Those questions are inevitable and go unanswered until someone of Murphy's calibre gives it a proper examination.

Dublin must be wary too, of the counter-attack. Donegal's most cutting weapon.

In Ryan McHugh, they have the best ball-carrier in the country at the moment. His balance is superb and he has added point scoring to an already vast repertoire.

It's a big game too, for Odhrán Mac Niallais, who gives Donegal their energy around the middle and a good long-range shooting option.

There are a few fundamentals that Dublin must execute themselves, though.

Firstly, they'll have to be patient. The gaps will open.

If you run at angles and at pace, there are holes to exploit.

And they have the long-range shooters to hurt Donegal from outside that scoring zone.

They'll also have to keep the Donegal crowd quiet.

But of grave importance is the need not to get caught on the counter-attack.

If they do that, they should have the players to chisel out a victory, even if it's going to be much closer than most seem to expect.

Obviously, there are question marks about James McCarthy.

If he's fit, it will be a huge lift. But if not, Jim might just need to improvise.

His move of playing Ciarán Kilkenny at wing-back at half-time in the Leinster final worked beautifully, though it might be too much of a risk here.

This is a huge step up in opposition for Dublin, one that might feel a bit of a culture shock against what they have faced previously this summer.

People will say Dublin haven't been tested until now or that the Leinster Championship hasn't done them any favours. Which is true.

But that excuse won't wash if they don't win on Saturday.