Thursday 14 November 2019

Donegal's cynicism a real disappointment

Keith Barr

WITH the benefit of a few days since the semi-final and the prospect of a titanic battle between Tipp and Kilkenny in the offing -- not to mention Dublin's first All-Ireland football final in 16 years -- I've mellowed a bit, just a bit.

And I think after a week in which Donegal got roundly hammered by everyone except their own supporters, we should remind ourselves that we're all blind in our own cause.

I wouldn't expect anything less from Donegal people than to stand by Jim McGuinness and his significant achievements this season. Most Gaelic games analysis is warped by county allegiance and I'm well aware that Dublin were equally defensive and played a hell of a lot of poor football in what was the most bewildering game I've ever seen at this level.

However, a line was crossed by Donegal (not the 20-metre line too often, unfortunately) during the Diarmuid Connolly incident -- and if a Dublin player had dived in an attempt to deny a man a place in an All-Ireland final, I'd call it. The failure of a number of high-profile former Donegal players to highlight the dive since has disappointed me greatly.

And we can do without the 'soccer' analysis that some commentators are applying to the incident, claiming Connolly "raised his hands, therefore deserved to go". Had Marty Boyle not grabbed his face and hit the deck, Connolly stays on the field. End of story.

Thankfully we have a system that can review the justice of a decision like this, just as it did with Michael Murphy earlier in the summer, and hopefully a strong message will be sent in due course that feigning injury doesn't work in Gaelic games. Left unchecked in soccer, diving is now constant and is crucifying the image of the game.

The cynical stuff tossed into Donegal's strategy was equally disappointing. And again, most counties are not blameless in this regard. However, Donegal were remorseless -- slowing up the ball constantly, sledging, stopping kick-outs, jumping at frees, mentors on the pitch trying to get players carded. Horrible bulls**t.

And it's a pity because, awful as most people felt the game was as a spectacle, I believe McGuinness' managerial feat this season was astonishing, culminating in the most effective defensive display ever witnessed.

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To get a squad to adapt and play to such a punishing system in such a short space of time was a serious achievement, one that brought a side from the backwater to within 10 minutes of an All-Ireland final -- not to mention league and provincial medals.

I was also really taken aback by their physicality. We all knew Dublin would struggle to break them down, but I felt in advance that the Leinster champions' power would open gaps in Donegal's defensive wall every so often. It didn't and for 60 minutes the Ulstermen reduced Dublin to playing like victims -- it was scary stuff for every long-suffering Dublin supporter in the stadium.


But surely McGuinness, who masterminded this very clever strategy, must have been disappointed that his side lacked the wherewithal to go on and win the game? That there wasn't even the tiniest window for his players to throw caution to the wind?

I know it's a work in progress but just as Anthony Daly said after the Dublin hurlers fell short against Tipp, it's an awful long way back to the last 10 minutes in an All-Ireland semi-final.

And we can be sure that the spotlight on every aspect of Donegal's performances next season will be intense, as will the counter-strategies now likely to be applied by every team playing them.

Ultimately, I believe that all purely defensive systems in sport are doomed to fail either because talent will always find a way around them or else, as happened in soccer and basketball, the governing bodies change the rules to ensure that they do.

Not that Dublin were rushing to commit players forward either, but ultimately they won the game by showing real moral courage when it was most required in the last 10 minutes.

And while this game has already been forgotten and is irrelevant to the challenge ahead, I genuinely believe Dublin's success in escaping Donegal's shackles ranks as their greatest achievement for as long as I can remember.

Everyone spoke about the need for patience in overcoming the defensive block, and Pat Gilroy showed a calmness that not too many Dublin people were feeling as the clock was ticking down.

Gilroy got a lot of stick for not committing more bodies forward, but, while the challenge may have been more intense than anyone was expecting, he stuck to his guns and his substitutions worked.

Sure, their superior fitness may have helped but Dublin won the game because they kicked on to win it. Donegal didn't.

Not that many of us could see the kick coming. I must admit that, like a lot of others, my thoughts were turning to how Kerry would manage to break down Donegal.

That remains a compelling thought -- how would the Gooch and Co have coped last Sunday? Because I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion that just by committing more men forward, Kerry's superior skills would have blossomed. Nothing could have blossomed against that system.

Thankfully, it's a thought that will now have to remain for next season as the so-called 'dream' final becomes a reality.

Unsurprisingly, after last Sunday's display by Dublin, Kerry remain clear odds-on favourites to lift Sam, and even in a county where the guard doesn't drop too often it will be difficult to keep a lid on expectations -- I can't remember Dublin being 6/4 underdogs in a two-horse race.

So on that basis, most expect this final to go the same way as it usually does when the sides meet in it -- with the Kingdom winning -- and little will change that perception in the run-up to the game. In our own warped way in the GAA, I suppose that could be something of a plus for Dublin.

Still, watching a recording of 'The Sunday Game' after the Donegal match, Joe Brolly hit the nail on the head when he said that nothing, absolutely nothing, could prepare you for playing against Donegal.

Unfortunately, most people say the same thing about Kerry!

Except Tyrone, of course. And Down. And Armagh...

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