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From semi hell to Blue heaven

Dublin and Donegal will seek to be at their prolific best on Saturday - a far cry from the boos that greeted them in 2011

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Neil McGee of Donegal holds his arms wide in front of Dublin’s Bernard Brogan during the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semifinal at Croke Park

Neil McGee of Donegal holds his arms wide in front of Dublin’s Bernard Brogan during the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semifinal at Croke Park

Colm McFadden is the only Donegal player in the Dublin half during the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park

Colm McFadden is the only Donegal player in the Dublin half during the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park

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Neil McGee of Donegal holds his arms wide in front of Dublin’s Bernard Brogan during the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semifinal at Croke Park

Colm O'Rourke came up with the four-word metaphor that perhaps best reflected the mood of a nation.

"The game from hell" is how the Sunday Game pundit described the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal.

August encounters, on the GAA's most pristine pitch, are not meant to produce the sum total of 14 points.

Knockout collisions watched by 81,436 fans are not meant to inspire a chorus of first-half boos - unless someone has just been decapitated.

But this was no ordinary match> It was the day Jim McGuinness unveiled the most brazen plan in modern football history, and the day Pat Gilroy refused to blink.

"We had two stubborn teams. If it was a chess match, we'd have agreed on stalemate long before the end," recalled Alan Brogan, five years later.

Stubbornness aside, there was another context at play: it was 19 years since Donegal had qualified for an All-Ireland final, and 16 years since the Dubs had done so.

To both success-starved protagonists, style without the substance of victory meant nothing. And that prize, eventually, belonged to Dublin: on the same day that Manchester United humiliated Arsenal 8-2, they eked out a 0-8 to 0-6 win.

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Now it's 2020, and two very different Dublin and Donegal sides are about to renew Croke Park battle in the Allianz Football League on Saturday night.

Football today is in a very different place. Barring some freakish weather, you will no longer ascend into Sam Maguire heaven by totalling 1-12, as Dublin did a few weeks after "the game from hell" with the help of a 1-3 burst to overtake Kerry down the home straight of the 2011 final.

Proof

Here's proof for the above: the last four losing finalists tallied 1-14 (Mayo in 2016), 1-16 (Mayo in '17), 1-14 (Tyrone in '18) and 0-15 (Kerry in last year's replay, having scored 1-16 the first day).

You're on even safer terrain to argue that you will never win another semi-final by scoring eight points.

What happened in 2011 was shocking, but not an entire shock when you consider the dominant defensive orthodoxy of that era. McGuinness merely abandoned the blanket in favour of the full duvet.

The manager's own words, in his 2015 memoir Until Victory Always, explain what he was hoping to achieve.

"We formulated our ideas and decided that at heart Dublin were a cautious and defensive team. The back six would always stay at home," McGuinness rationalised.

"We went to Redcastle for a weekend and everything was hashed out. It was then that we floated the idea of bringing every single player into our half of the field to try to lure them out. We knew it would cause outrage. But we decided that we didn't care what anyone thought."

It subsequently emerged that, three hours before throw-in, McGuinness gathered all his players and backroom team in the one meeting room, where everyone's mobile phone was collected to ensure no last-minute leak of the revolutionary plan to out-score (or out-bore) the Dubs.

Later that year, Kevin Cassidy gave a revealing account of what had been said in that room. Cassidy's recollection was published in Declan Bogue's This Is Our Year, chronicling the 2011 season through the eyes of various Ulster football personalities - the same book that prompted McGuinness to unceremoniously drop his All Star wing-back from the panel.

Cassidy quoted his then-manager as saying: "This game could end up four-three, doesn't matter. As long as we're on the right end of the result, that's all that matters.

"The longer we keep them without scoring their first-half goal, without getting their big run for ten or 15 minutes at the start of the game, the pressure will be all on them. They'll start kicking crazy wides, the Brogans are going to shoot from anywhere. They're going to get frustrated and they won't be able to understand why they can't break you down. Diarmuid Connolly is not going to get a kick on goal."

As Alan Brogan recalled in The Herald before their SFC rivalry was renewed in 2018: "My abiding memory of the infamous 2011 match was the throw-in, standing at centre-forward and twitching to get going.

"Then, the ball is tossed in the air by Maurice Deegan and as I watch it fall, I see Mark McHugh, Christy Toye and Frank McGlynn in my peripheral vision all sprinting from the Donegal half-forward line into their defence, completely ignoring the ball. It was a statement from Donegal. There would be no pretence."

And, for over half of that surreal semi-final, it worked. Donegal conceded the kick-out to Stephen Cluxton and then sought to frustrate the life out of Dublin. It was 0-1 apiece before Ryan Bradley kicked the first point from play after 24 minutes.

They led by 0-4 to 0-2 at half-time; and if Colm McFadden's goal chance soon after had fizzed under, not over, the crossbar, who knows how Dublin would have coped chasing a five-point deficit.

But as Brogan concluded in the same column: "What won it for us that day was keeping six men back at all times. Donegal only had Colm McFadden in our half, so their scoring threat was even more limited than ours. And Pat Gilroy emphasised to us at half-time that we were to hold our shape and we weren't, under any circumstances, to blink first. That's why the game was such an awful spectacle."

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Jim Gavin was at the vanguard of football's gradual return to a more attacking game. During his seven-year reign, pushed all the way by Kerry and Mayo at different times, his team became the ultimate scoring machine.

Over time, as others discovered they could no longer stem the bleeding by parking the bus, rival managers sought other ways to try and beat the Dubs (usually without success).

True, Gavin was forced to moderate his own gung-ho approach after being ambushed in 2014 by, of all counties, Donegal. This time, McGuinness found the perfect blend of hard-nosed defence and lightning counter-attack to expose a Dublin team that, unlike in 2011, fell into the trap of heedless all-out attack.

But whereas Dublin, post-2014, became more patient and pragmatic, they have remained the high-scoring benchmark: to such an extent that their average championship score in 2018 (27.5 points) and 2019 (26.5 points) was higher than in any of their previous five SFC campaigns under Gavin.

Now the baton has passed to Dessie Farrell, who is unlikely to tinker with what has made them so successful.

Meanwhile, Donegal under Declan Bonner have become a more prolific outfit than they were under Rory Gallagher, albeit they are still chasing the McGuinness blueprint for ultimate success.

During Gallagher's three-year tenure, embracing 40 league and championship fixtures, the team averaged 15.15 points … and without the sustenance of silverware, some fans found their cautious, counter-attacking template a big turn-off.

So far under Bonner, Donegal have played 31 times in NFL and SFC combat and averaged 18.2 points (or just over 1-15) while accumulating back-to-back Ulster titles and last year's Division 2 crown.

Fury

And now this Saturday, as a feisty precursor to Fury and Wilder, the men from the north-west are once again ready to rumble with Dublin.

It's debatable whether this fixture still has the edge that was there in the early part of the last decade - even less so a league game in February. After all, they have met 10 times since 2011 and Dublin have won seven of them, drawing twice in the league and losing just the once.

But the memory of that "game from hell" still hovers as a reminder of what football can become when the result is everything.


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