Dubs recover from moment of panic to extend unbeaten run
Donegal 2-5 Dublin 1-8
All's well that ends well. Dublin extend their unbeaten run in league and championship games to 32, a sequence that will cross the two-year mark on Wednesday next. Donegal remain unbeaten in Ballybofey for a 16th successive game, also in league and championship, since Down turned them over in May 2010.
Given where both sides are in terms of development, Rory Gallagher will take more from it. With six retirements and three more established players making themselves unavailable, a sense of transition has been prevalent in Donegal.
However, they showed no sign of inhibition in twice reeling Dublin in from four and two-point leads in either half to halt a losing run against the All-Ireland champions that had stretched to four since Gallagher took over.
They may have to take a step back from the top table, but it surely won't keep them from within touching distance of it. Not when Michael Murphy, Paddy McGrath, Neil McGee and Frank McGlynn continue to provide the pillars and young men like Jason McGee, Eoin McHugh, Caolan Ward and Michael Carroll continue to flourish.
They needed the pandemonium of two goals just before the break to throw them a lifeline, but they used it well and ultimately were full value for the draw.
In fact, they were in a reasonably prominent attacking position when referee Ciaran Branagan blew to conclude right on the 39th-minute mark - not a second over the four added minutes.
That said, their equalising point from a converted Michael Murphy free was a gift from Branagan. However difficult the kick was to guide it across a swirling breeze, Eric Lowndes' challenge on Eamonn Doherty scarcely merited punishment, which fed into a topic touched on by Dublin manager Jim Gavin afterwards.
"We got ahead and one or two decisions, unfortunately, went against us, which seems to be a common theme for this year," he said.
"We are certainly swimming against the tide on that one. Certainly, you have to maybe question the last free, but again the referee is closer than I am.
"Again (earlier in the game) Ciarán Kilkenny had the ball and the advantage was brought back. We were on their 13-metre line and we don't want the advantage brought back to midfield.
"Anyway, it is what it is and the referees are doing their best, as we all are."
For effort, neither side was found wanting. It was a grind, dictated by tricky underfoot conditions and intermittent rain, but an engaging battle in the circumstances that didn't have the rancour of their previous draw at the venue four years earlier.
For long spells Dublin were able to show more patience and control and left Donegal without a score for 25 and 27-minute blocks in either half.
Still, when Donegal countered they looked dangerous, with Eoin and Ryan McHugh's lightness over the soft ground a factor. Dublin were happy to concede frees to bring those developing moves to a halt early, as Gallagher observed afterwards.
"We've played Dublin a number of times and they know the strongest part of our game is our running game and they obviously targeted that," he said.
"There was not too much dirty, it was a difficult game to referee, it was quite congested at times and while Michael and a couple of other guys were targeted, that was to be expected."
Jason McGee got them off the mark in the opening minute, but Dublin gradually eased their way into it and had five points scored when Ciaran Thompson landed a second point from a free.
The goals came from nowhere. First Jason McGee squeezed in a shot from close range on 35 minutes, after an earlier effort in the build-up had been batted out by Stephen Cluxton.
Cluxton's subsequent kick-out fell into Donegal hands and from there Marty O'Reilly engineered a pass to Ryan McHugh, who slipped beneath the Dublin captain within 40 seconds.
Shades of the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final perhaps, but more recently last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry when panic enveloped Dublin's goalmouth. In an unbeaten sequence of such length, though, they've learned to adapt.
"Over the last couple of seasons it hasn't knocked these Dublin players off their stride," noted Gavin.
Dublin went in 2-2 to 0-5 behind at the break and that extended to a four-point deficit when the influential Murphy was floored by a Mick Fitzsimons collision and converted the subsequent free just after the restart.
Once again Dublin inched their way back and seized the moment for their first 2017 league goal with an intricate build-up involving Jack McCaffrey, Philly McMahon, Kevin McManamon and Kilkenny to make the opening for Niall Scully. He once again showed his potential value, to score on 54 minutes.
It was a rare piercing of a resolute defence and a first goal from play from a Dublin player in almost six league or championship games since Paul Mannion knifed through the Donegal defence in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.
Dublin might have kicked on from there as Brian Fenton grew and Michael Darragh MacAuley and Kevin McManamon made an impact off the bench, but Donegal still sensed they could take something from it and were much more ambitious in the closing quarter.
However, two frees, from Thompson and Murphy, was as much as they could manufacture as Dublin held firm.
"I am happy with the character shown, the most disappointing thing was the 15 minutes either side of half-time against Kerry, when I thought we did throw in the towel. We showed a lot of naivety in conceding the goal today, but in terms of work-rate, commitment and effort shown, it was very positive," said Gallagher.
For Dublin it has the feel of sniper alley right now. Tyrone last week, Donegal this week, Mayo next week and Kerry in Tralee to come. But they're dealing with it on a case by case basis, meeting every rise on the road.
Scorers - Dublin: N Scully 1-1, D Rock 0-3 (3fs), C McHugh, D Byrne, S Carthy, C Kilkenny all 0-1 each. Donegal: J McGee 1-1, R McHugh 1-0, C Thompson (2fs), M Murphy (2fs) 0-2 each
Dublin: S Cluxton 6; P McMahon 6, M Fitzsimons 7, D Daly 7; E Lowndes 7, J McCaffrey 7, J Small 7; B Fenton 8, C Reddin 5; S Carthy (St Vincent's) 5, C Kilkenny 6, N Scully 7; C McHugh 5, E O'Gara 6, D Rock 5. Subs: MD MacAuley 6 for Reddin (41), P Flynn 6 for Carthy (41), K McManamon 7 for O'Gara (44), D Byrne 7 for McCaffrey inj (56), J Whelan for McHugh (62), E O Conghaile for Daly (69).
Donegal: M McGinley 7; C Ward 7, N McGee 8, P McGrath 7; E Ban Gallagher 6, P Brennan 6, R McHugh 6; M Murphy 8, J McGee 7; M Carroll 7, M O'Reilly 6, C Thompson 6; F McGlynn 7, E McHugh 7, J Brennan 5. Subs: H McFadden 6 for J Brennan (39), D O'Connor 5 for P Brennan (45), E Doherty 6 for Carroll (57), S McBrearty for E McHugh (63).
Ref: C Branagan (Down).