Tuesday 21 January 2020

Colm O'Rourke: How Donegal have made Dublin a much better team

Brian Fenton of Dublin in action against Ryan McHugh and Martin McElhinney of Donegal. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Brian Fenton of Dublin in action against Ryan McHugh and Martin McElhinney of Donegal. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Dublin should have been out of sight long before the end. Diarmuid Connolly had two great goal chances, but spurned both. Yet his two points in the first half, off either foot, showed his exceptional talent.

But that opening half was another reflection of how drab the game has become. In the first 20 minutes there was one point from play - and that was from a defender.

Crowds have become numbed by this paralysed football, and even though there was a full house the atmosphere was completely muted for both games. In fact, there was much more fun outside before the games started.

Dublin have learned that patience and hard running by the likes of McManamon and Macauley is the way to beat Donegal. There was no gung-ho attack from the half-back line. They were content to sit and mind the house.

The lessons have been well learned. Donegal have made Dublin a much better team. Donegal looked like men who have run out of road despite the fact that they threatened to spoil the party again when Ryan McHugh netted.

Paul Mannion
Mannion celebrates scoring Dublin's goal

The goal came from a dreadful Cian O'Sullivan attempt to kick a simple pass. When the ball was lost, it was like old Donegal - with a necklace of passes ending with McHugh palming in. But Donegal didn't have enough McHughs to go around, and they also kicked a pile of wides. Paul Mannion's magnificent goal late on finally settled it.

Donegal still have that sheer bloody-mindedness where they sit back and let a team come at them. Now though, they don't have the pace to swarm forward as in the past. With Michael Murphy cutting a peripheral figure, as he has all year, Donegal did not have the outlet at full-forward which has helped to crush teams in the past. Indeed, Philly McMahon easily held Murphy and scored the first point too.

There was a complete difference in the kick-outs. Dublin pushed up most of the time and tried to create contests in the middle of the field, most of which they won until late-on - when they were outnumbered. Donegal, on the other hand, conceded almost all to Dublin in an effort to set their back line - the downside of this was giving Dublin possession, and it is very hard to get the ball back from them.

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At half-time the game looked over, yet Dublin limped home - discipline becoming an issue with two sending-offs and a black card. Connolly spoke recently about coping with being a marked man. Every great forward since the game began has been a marked man. He needs to just play as he is not much good on the bench, and his team down a man.

The second half was a perfect one for Jim Gavin to whip his troops into line before the semi-final against Kerry. They could have gone for the jugular just after the break but messed about with cross-field handpassing and nearly paid the price again.

Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin celebrates with John Small, left
Ciaran Kilkenny celebrates

At times Ciaran Kilkenny looked like one of those old Nuffield tractors which was stuck in reverse gear. A player like him should have attacked and kicked points to finish the game. Yet when it came to it, Dublin had the running power and a crispness of passing which steered them home. They are still the team to beat.

Earlier, Mayo saw off another Northern giant with a mixture of bravery, desperation and, at the end, pure good fortune. Tyrone had three great chances to equalise but missed them all. For the last five minutes Mayo played a game of chicken and nearly got caught. A pass from Aidan O'Shea back to his goalkeeper in the last play caused Mayo hearts to skip at least one beat, but David Clarke gathered and cleared safely.

It was obvious from the beginning that Mayo were looking to ensure that the curse of leaking goals was not going to strike early in Croke Park this time. They packed the defence and kept at least three defenders strung across their half-back line.

They looked tight and well organised, although it meant that Tyrone were able to take short kick-outs. Mayo obviously decided that they could not have it both ways.

Tyrone played as normal, two men in front of their full-back line and three further out. Both teams mirrored each other and long-range points were the only way to score - even if Mattie Donnelly and Cillian O'Connor looked as if they could get points from any angle or distance. Donnelly's efforts were in total contrast to a lot of the wild shooting from Tyrone.

When Aidan O'Shea went to full-forward a few long kicks were posted in his direction. When he caught the first one there was a roar of anticipation from the Mayo followers, but he was brilliantly dispossessed by Colm Cavanagh. Quite why Cavanagh had to go back and mouth off at O'Shea after this piece of great skill only he can answer, but it was clear Tyrone were trying to wind up O'Shea at every opportunity.

It worked a few times too, but one knock-down to Andy Moran and an easy point showed how dangerous the long ball can be if the right man is on the end of it.

Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan missed two long frees in that first half, and one vital one in the second. We need a shuttle bus now to ferry goalkeepers up the field to kick frees.

When Seán Cavanagh was sent-off for a second yellow with 58 minutes gone it looked as if Tyrone were spent. Even though Cavanagh was not playing well and was cut off several times by great defensive play from Lee Keegan, he is still a leader and capable of scoring match-winning points, as he showed in the Ulster final. Yet Tyrone kept on coming, and should have saved the game.

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