Monday 20 November 2017

Colm Keys: They may not recognise it but Dublin and Donegal have been good for each other

Donegal and Dublin have both made adjustments from semi-final defeats to each other to win an All-Ireland title the following year

Donegal's Patrick McBrearty in action against Dublin's Cian O'Sullivan earlier this year. Photo: Sportsfile
Donegal's Patrick McBrearty in action against Dublin's Cian O'Sullivan earlier this year. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In his autobiography 'Until Victory Always', Jim McGuinness recalls the chill wind that blew hard in their direction in the aftermath of the 2011 championship season, whipped up by the extraordinary nature of their All-Ireland semi-final with Dublin that year.

A couple of months later, McGuinness travelled to Wicklow for a forum organised by the St Patrick's club where he was a guest along with Henry Shefflin and Darran O'Sullivan. Micheál ó Muircheartaigh was moderating.

At one point he was talking about Donegal's approach to the season in general when ó Muircheartaigh cut in with what McGuinness described as a "gentle reproach".

"You know Jim there is a way to win an All-Ireland."

The renowned broadcaster may well have been reflecting a strong view among the wider GAA audience at the time.


For McGuinness though his views "made sense" to the locals who, he pointed out, hadn't found a way to win an All-Ireland yet.

The nature of that 2011 semi-final still influences the Gaelic football discourse to this day.

Read More: McBrearty will need a hand if donegal are to upset the odds

Coupled with their 2014 semi-final is it too much to say that, given the impact that game had on checking Dublin's more cavalier side, Dublin-Donegal championship games have shaped the biggest trends of the modern era more than any other rivalry? Hardly not.

Would there have been a Connacht final with in excess of 450 handpasses, one in every three backwards, if the mould hadn't been broken by the 242 or so recorded by Donegal in that semi-final less than five years earlier?

Would Kildare have set up with two sweepers in an opening championship match in Croke Park earlier this year against Wexford if the precedent hadn't been set in 2011?

Of course the Kerry goal rush in their previous Croke Park championship match helped to shape their thinking but Donegal made it more acceptable.

Yet the irony is that Donegal had planned for a different type of game than the entrenched 0-8 to 0-6 stalemate, only broken in the last 10 minutes by a Dublin side that recovered its nerve in time.

"It was a big a shock to the players to learn in the hotel just a few hours before the game that we were going to play this way," recalled the team's centre-forward Michael Hegarty who retired at the end of that season.

"Up to that we had been playing a little more openly. We won an Ulster final against Derry playing good football, had a great match with Kildare."

They defended as planned but didn't break with anything like the speed, intensity or numbers that they needed to.

Hegarty recalls thinking at half-time that if they got Neil Gallagher on the field and pushed Michael Murphy up they would win the game. But they held the same shape for far too long.

That forced a rethink in the off-season that saw their average points total jump from 12 to 17 in one season.

Similarly the 2014 semi-final led to a marked redrawing of Dublin's plans, especially the role since given to Cian O'Sullivan who had spent Gavin's first two seasons in charge as a midfielder.

The positioning of such an athletic defender as Michael Darragh Macauley's midfield partner was a statement of intent in itself as to how Dublin were going to play.

O'Sullivan's withdrawal to centre-back, arguably his most natural position, and the deeper-lying positions he takes up now make him, with Stephen Cluxton, arguably Dublin's most important player.

That 2014 defeat led to some of Gavin's most insightful comments a few weeks later when he publicly accepted responsibility for the performance and the "vulnerability" and "unpredictability" of how they sometimes went about their business that year.

"It's about trying to get that balanced approach in the future. The performance wasn't balanced in relation to the game and we got ruthlessly punished by a very good team who exploited it. That's for me to go away and learn from."

Read More: Murphy rejects form and fitness concerns

In the midst of a 25-match unbeaten streak dating back to March 1 last year that learning process was clearly quick and effective.


Thus, there has been symbiosis at play in the relationship between these two teams, lessons learned in each other's company, three years apart, successfully crafting semi-final losers into All-Ireland champions 12 months later. They may not recognise it but Dublin and Donegal have been good for each other.

For Hegarty, the pragmatism required inevitably invades every dressing-room, even Dublin's.

"Supporters are very upset with how the game has gone but as a player even when we were involved we had no success with great teams for about 10 years; we ended up being caught out too often at the back. It's all about the result. Players don't care how they get to that point and what it takes."

Hegarty figures that if Donegal can get on the front foot early and dictate terms they can win the game.

A defence that has conceded just 1-4 from 3-38 from placed balls in their last three games needs to be maintain that discipline against a place-kicker, Dean Rock, who has nailed each of his last 17 shots in two games.

"Donegal still has one of the strongest defensive structures. Maybe the same energy isn't down through the middle of the team but it's there on the wings."

Irish Independent

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