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Jim'll fix tactics but can he battle time?

NO sooner had Diarmuid Connolly scored that sublime opening goal on Saturday than this column began to ruminate on Dublin/Donegal - the Rematch. In that instant we knew - instinctively, logically - that there would be no way back for Monaghan.

But now, after the dust has settled on the weekend's contrasting quarter-final fare, our focus has flipped. "How will Dublin cope with Donegal's defensive web?" has been replaced by "How can Donegal hope to live with Dublin?"

Here's the thing, for all you tactical junkies addicted to the minutiae of Gaelic football ... it's still a game whose outcome is usually determined by class, which can last but not forever, and form, a more transient commodity. And this is where Donegal find themselves in serious deficit, right now.


Over the next while expect endless media flashbacks to that game, the nearest thing to a nil-all draw in elite Gaelic football, the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final. You know the shorthand synopsis: Jim McGuinness pushes the blanket defence bar to its nth degree with his 14-men-behind-the-ball, leaving Colm McFadden as the occasionally supported sole raider ... and to gasps of head-shaking disbelief, it almost works.

After 50 minutes they led by 0-6 to 0-3 and - only as Donegal bodies tired and their error count rose - did Dublin wrestle control and win by 0-8 to 0-6.

(As a brief aside, Dublin on the day weren't exactly paragons of swashbuckling Total Football either. Not to mind: history is written by the winners.)

Dublin duly went the September distance and, 12 months later, so did Donegal, with a modified game-plan still designed to stifle the opposition but with an onus on higher scoring returns.

When it comes to this year's semi-final, we find 2012 a more interesting reference point than 2011. Here's why: this is when McGuinness's team was at the zenith of its powers.

The irony is that Donegal reserved their least convincing performance that year for the final itself, against Mayo. Yet there was no doubting their top dog status, reflected in their clean sweep of nominations for Footballer of the Year - McFadden, Frank McGlynn and eventual winner Karl Lacey.

Now, you can argue until infinity whether Donegal at their all-conquering best, circa 2012, would somehow squeeze the life out of Jim Gavin's current Dublin team ... we'll never know. But can you construct a logical case for Donegal circa 2014 doing likewise?

Lacey was not his usual dynamic influence against Armagh on Saturday, although an early hamstring injury can be cited in mitigation. Nor was McGlynn at his best until, to his credit, playing a storming role in their late victory charge. However, the waning form of McFadden, both last weekend and throughout this championship, is the biggest concern for Donegal.

It may be unfair to focus on one individual, except that McFadden's role has been so central to the McGuinness blueprint.


He was our choice for Footballer of the Year in 2012, not just for his many crucial and brilliant scores (4-32 in seven outings) but for how he led the line, especially with Michael Murphy playing deeper for much of that campaign until the final itself. By contrast, in four games this summer he has tallied 0-9 but, in general play too, he looks stuck in a rut.

In fairness to McFadden - as with many of this team - he has been around the block, making his SFC debut in 2002. That's a long time on the treadmill.

McGuinness won't have one of his 2012 linchpins - Mark McHugh - as he plots his biggest challenge yet, but he'll need all the others in fine physical fettle and straining at the leash on August 31.

There is no smarter strategist around so it would be a fool to discount him; but tactics will only get you so far against these free-wheeling Dubs.

One last stat. Dublin scored 5-82 in their six-match run to the 2011 All-Ireland title, averaging just over 1-13 per game. In their four matches to this year's semi-final they've amassed 9-88, averaging close to 2-23. Do the maths!

Conclusion? Time moves on; no team stays the same.