Alan Brogan: My abiding memory of that infamous semi-final in 2011 is what Donegal did right after the throw-in
THERE’S a natural fascination/wariness about Donegal in Dublin, probably stemming from the two All-Ireland semi-finals we played against them in 2011 and ’14, neither of which are days I recall particularly fondly.
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. They were here to defend, constrict and frustrate. And, largely, they did all of those things.
It was a weird, weird day.
The atmosphere in the ground was strange and it got dark and overcast too, adding to the weird vibe in Croke Park.
No-one could really believe just how Donegal were going about their business that day.
Naturally, we had practiced for something akin to what they tried, doing logical things like playing 15 versus 18 in training but it’s only when they set up and we saw just how defensive they were, that we fully appreciated the total commitment they had to trying to drive us to, and beyond, the point of distraction.
We had a plan, of course, but it never really worked in the first half.
We thought we could find little pockets of space in their half-back line, press up on kick-outs and then do damage from there.
We also wanted to kick long, quick ball into our full-forward line before they had a chance to reset their defence but they way Donegal played, they never advanced enough out of their own ‘65 to need to reset in the first place.
So we kicked wides from long range on a wet day, adding to the frustration of our supporters and giving every Donegal person in Croke Park huge energy with every errant kick.
Nowadays, people talk about pressing up on opposition defenders and occupying their sweepers as though it’s a tactical revelation, the newly-unearthed missing link in the never-ending quest to prize open mass defenses.
But 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.
We refused to be drawn in to their trap, to commit 12 players to attack and then, be hit on the break by their runners ambling through gaping holes.
James McCarthy and Kevin Nolan were given licence to attack more but always, someone filled in.
So we had two stubborn teams.
If it was a chess match, we’d have agreed on stalemate long before the end.
We needed Kevin McManamon’s pace and his ability to draw two or three men in to stop him and a couple of points from Bryan Cullen to win it in the end but we needed a bit of luck, too.
Karl Lacey went off injured early in the second half. McFadden missed a good goal chance just before that, too.
For obvious reasons, 2014 is one of the worst memories I have.
Strangely, we probably played our best football that year but didn’t make the All-Ireland final.
Paul Flynn was the Footballer of the Year in waiting at half-time in the semi-final and Diarmuid Connolly wasn’t far behind him.
I was back to full fitness, Bernard was in his prime and Rory O’Carroll was still with us.
We’d won the All-Ireland in 2013 and the ’13 and ’14 Leagues under Jim playing an all-out, man-to-man attacking style, pressing up our defenders on any opposition forwards who dropped deep.
We hadn’t lost a match of any substance since 2012 and were coming to a peak in terms of scoring and performance but Jim McGuinness obviously saw a way to beat us and his team were really well drilled in their game plan that day.
They dragged us out of position, won kick-outs in the middle of the pitch and got in for three goals.
We should have been in a more commanding position in the first half, we went nine points to four up.
Diarmuid and Paul Flynn both had good goal chances that didn’t go in that could have wrapped up the game before half-time and there was a large element of fortune about McFadden’s goal.
But it’s a day that I’m sure haunts a lot of Dublin players who played in it.
The proof of Jim’s calibre as a manager though, is the fact that Dublin haven’t lost a Championship game since then and have all the traits of a team that has learned its lessons.
Jim tightened up the defence and did so making tweaks rather than systematic overhaul, ensuring his philosophy was never compromised.
On Saturday, I’d expect to see Donegal continue their development under Declan Bonner.
But I think the chance of Donegal causing another shock is severely dented with Paddy McBrearty’s cruciate injury.
He’s simply irreplaceable, although Michael Murphy is bound to play at least some of the game at full-forward given the joy Donie Kingston had there at times in the Leinster final.
Their quick ball carriers are now Donegal’s best weapon but without the outlet of McBrearty, they’re a little more predictable.
I’d expect Dublin to win this game – but the memories of ’11 and ’14 to sustain a while longer.
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