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Gavin on red alert for culture clash

THE clock is ticking ever closer towards an All-Ireland semi-final laden with tactical intrigue, and Jim Gavin looks and sounds positively chilled out. As a retired military man, he'll understand the meaning of the term 'at ease' and yet you know, behind the relaxed exterior, he's on full alert.

Gavin has been giving his total attention to Donegal for almost three weeks, ever since his Dublin charges and their Ulster rivals emerged unscathed from a Saturday double-header in Croke Park.

Dublin may be 1/10 with the bookies but that hasn't dulled the interest of partisans and neutrals alike. The first Croker full house since One Direction takes place on Sunday, billed as a clash of cultures between Dublin's all-out attack and Donegal's uber-defence.

The air has been thick with flashbacks to 2011, the semi-final that saw Donegal park the 14-man bus and Dublin - initially disorientated by such a unique challenge - almost miss their ride to the All-Ireland final.

One change of manager later, Dublin have become more swashbuckling and even more successful. Donegal also moderated their game-plan in 2012, with glorious results ... but they're still footballing Scrooges compared to the industry standard.

So, three years on from 2011, is this a defining game for Gaelic football?

"Not at all," Gavin countered, speaking at Dublin's semi-final press conference yesterday. "Each county has its own culture. That's the great thing about Gaelic football, and Gaelic games in general.


"There is no right or wrong way, in my opinion, to set a team up. It's the manager's decision to decide what strategy and tactics he employs on any given day. And he's doing his very best for his community and his county.

"We've just inherited from people who have gone before us a particular style of football that's played at club level (in Dublin). And people expect us to play that at county level. Sometimes we get successful, sometimes we don't. There are no guarantees, but that's just the way we play."

There follows a lengthy debate about what he expects from Donegal and how their tactics will impact (or not) on Dublin's own thinking. The All-Ireland champions have been averaging over 2-22 this summer, so can we expect Jim McGuinness to go ultra-defensive?

"I can't dictate and control how another team set themselves up," Gavin points out.

"I acknowledge that Donegal have a very strong defensive system and are very difficult to break down. In attack, they're very competent. They manage the ball very well, great patterns of movement and get players into the scoring positions. And they have a very high shot-scoring ratio from taking the right options at the right time.

"They can mix it up with some long balls into the square. They have some big players there. How they set themselves up ... we can't dictate that," he repeats. "Most of our work over the past two weeks has been on how we're going to play our game."

The Dublin manager clarifies ("absolutely") that Dublin's game-plan is dictated by how he thinks Donegal will set up, with different strategies in place depending on match-day circumstances. Moreover, as the quarter-final against Monaghan underlined, his players have recent experience of a blanket defence and were able to modify their originally cautious approach that day, pushing up as the first half progressed. "The great thing about these Dublin players is they have a high level of game intelligence," Gavin enthuses. "They see patterns of defensive play develop against them; they will talk about it on the field of play; and do what is required to break a team down."

Cue a 17-point massacre, even though the sides were level after 24 minutes.

No one expects a similar landslide on Sunday, even though you'll struggle to find a pundit raising his head above the parapet to trumpet a Donegal triumph. Most people also expect more of the same from Donegal ... but what if McGuinness throws something from left field? Don't forget, this is the manager who started with Michael Murphy on the edge of the square in the 2012 All-Ireland final, with devastating early consequences for Mayo.

"When we played them in Ballybofey, they pushed up on us," Gavin reminds his inquisitors. "So they can certainly change their strategies as well. We don't really look that far in the past. Both teams have changed and evolved since 2011. That's a long time ago.


"So the reference point for me would be Donegal's most recent success, which is an Ulster title and a very compact game against Armagh, where they looked to be in control for most of it, and they did what they had to do to win the game. That's what quarter-finals are about."

Last question: given the much-publicised flashpoint in Ballybofey (an unproven allegation of biting against a Dublin player) and the controversial red card (subsequently rescinded) for Diarmuid Connolly in 2011 (pictured, inset left), is there any lingering bad blood between the counties?

"Certainly not," the Dublin boss insists. "From my perspective, there's a height of respect for Donegal and their traditions and the way they play their football. They're very passionate about Gaelic games. Down through the years, we've had some fantastic games against them. It's a contact sport and there's physical exchanges. Once the final whistle is blown, there's great respect there for Donegal or for any team that we play."