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Let's put it right

BLANKET defences, swarming attacks, marauding half-backs, target men and inside snipers ... there are a million and one tactical clichés doing the rounds about tomorrow's All-Ireland semi-final clash between Dublin and Donegal.

For the Dubs' powerhouse midfielder, Michael Darragh Macauley, the trick is intelligence.

"We have to be smart," he told the Herald at yesterday's announcement of the Dublin team entrusted with qualifying for September football for the first time in 16 years.

"We have to be patient against a team like that and work our scores. We're going to have to look at that and lads are going to have to keep their discipline and be patient."

Patience isn't a virtue with which Hill 16 is normally associated though, and Macauley is acutely aware that a positive start will not only lift the hordes to raptures, it will also force Donegal out of the safety of their defensive comforts.

"That's going to be very difficult, as proven against Tyrone and Kildare," the 'Boden midfielder retorts. "But we know what we're up against. We know they tackle ferociously. They get numbers behind the ball.

"But it's more than just the system they play," he points out. "They have some fantastic individuals in their team as well, which they probably don't get enough credit for -- the likes of Murphy and McFadden up front and Cassidy and Lacey coming through. So it's an impressive all-round package."

If ways to skin a cat actually do number more than just one, surely there is also a myriad of methods to tearing up a blanket.

It's been noted that Dublin's hitherto effective tactic of moving the ball long, quickly and accurately will be stiffed by the systematic green and gold clogging of the attacking swathes, but for a man of the physique of Macauley, the most direct route -- straight-line running -- may yet prove the most effective.

Along with his trademark high-fielding and mesmerising hands, Macauley's powerful bursts have unhinged some of the most miserly defences in Ireland, yet the skill for which he was perhaps most impressive last year was actually a defensive one.

It became almost a trademark to watch Macauley rip the ball cleanly from an unwitting opponent's hands and it seems as if his team mates have caught up after displaying -- particularly in the dying stages of last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork -- a lack of technique and discipline in execution of the skill.

"We have worked on it a lot," he admits. "The tackling and most importantly, disciplined tackling. Donegal have free takers that can kill you and if you're fouling when you're going to tackle, these lads can put them over the bar from 50 yards, no problem. Tackling," he notes, "is one thing, but doing it properly is a whole other ball game."

Against Tyrone, when all of Dublin's planet aligned perfectly, his standard foot passing represented a marked improvement and that's not by accident either.

"We have the boys up front; the Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly, who can do serious damage if you get it to them quickly," he reasons. "If you get them ball in space early, they can get big scores."

"Like, Connolly," he continues. "Everyone knows he has the talent. That performance was coming. It was one of those days when everything clicked for him. Everything he touched went over the bar. He could do no wrong. Another one from him on Sunday and we'll be happy."

Macauley is also effusive in his praise for new midfield partner Denis Bastick and smiles when he admits to being "well impressed" with his point from 45 metres against Tyrone.

Their respective footballing traits dovetailed effectively in the quarter-final and Bastick's sniffer-dog like job on Seán Cavanagh allowed Macauley to hit anything else that moved in a white and red jersey.

Likewise, he is building up a key understanding with Stephen Cluxton with regard to the Dublin 'keeper's kick outs and reveals how the two of them stayed after training on Thursday evening to "try and get that sixth sense" for his restarts.

And if Macauley can pull down enough ball around the middle and ship quickly to his half-forward/half-back lines, you have to imagine that quick early ball into the Dublin inside line can thrive.

No chat with Macauley could be complete without reference to last year, though. And it's not a completely happy tale.

Having barged his way into Pat Gilroy's starting team within months of being added to the squad, he added a new dimension to the Dublin engine room and by the conclusion of the championship, could consider himself unlucky not to have been honoured with an All Star award.

Yet his abiding memories of the season are not the highs of his own individual performance or even Dublin's stirring run through the qualifiers.

No, Macauley's most vivid 2010 recollections are of the car crash conclusion to the season and that defeat by Cork at precisely this juncture last year.

"It was painful," he concedes. "I was getting flashbacks walking down the road just a few days afterwards. Being so close and having been so far up and thrown it away ... but I think it will stand to us," he adds with customary optimism.

"You have to lose one to win one. And I think if we get eight points ahead against any team now, we're not going to get ahead of ourselves. We know teams can come back. It happened it the league final again this year ... hopefully that was the last one and we won't let it happen again."

Specifically, what was the moral of the story for Dublin?

"It's learning how to kill off teams. It's not an easy trait to learn.

"I think Cork had learned it by last year. We just can't take our foot off the gas against teams.

"But at half-time, that's an easy thing to say. Until a team has come back at you and knocked you out, you haven't really learned the lesson and appreciate how it happens.

"We have serious regrets from last year that we want to put right. So it would mean everything."