Gavin hails Dublin's drive after rising to McBrearty's challenge
Dublin 0-20 Donegal 0-15
Even an off-colour Dublin are near impossible to beat in Croke Park these days. No goals, few frills, but an unquenchable appetite and indomitable spirit helped them achieve their 50th win at headquarters under Jim Gavin on Saturday night.
Leading Donegal by six points at half-time, Dublin's trademark third quarter burn-off mechanism malfunctioned. Instead, the country's form forward Paddy McBrearty single-handedly dragged the visitors back to within a point of the All-Ireland champions with ten minutes remaining.
So all the elements for an upset were in place; the strengthening breeze favoured the visitors, their All-Ireland-winning captain Michael Murphy had just been introduced for his seasonal debut and McBrearty - who had knocked over four sublime points from play in the preceding 22 minutes - was in the zone.
But when faced with adversity this Dublin team simply rise again and again to the challenge.
Before an attendance of 21,439, they held Donegal scoreless for the rest of the contest and kicked four points into the wind, three of which came from substitutes, Eoghan O'Gara, Ciarán Reddin and Paddy Small - with the latter pair getting on the scoresheet in the final 90 seconds of a 40-minute second half. "What's pleasing from my perspective is how the players responded; the collective willingness to work for each other and keep them scoreless. And for us to get those last four scores just showed a great focus in the team, and just a great determination," suggested team boss Jim Gavin.
The outcome means that despite three spirited performances Donegal remained rooted at the foot of Division 1 and their long winless league streak against Dublin goes on - they achieved their last league victory over Dublin in Ballyshannon in 2007.
The outcome might have been different had McBrearty availed of a goal chance in the opening seconds - his hesitation allowed Stephen Cluxton advance and narrow the angle and when the Dublin goalkeeper - who was making his 99th league appearance - was beaten in injury-time at the end of the half, Jamie Brennan's thundering drive rebounded off the upright.
Building a team for the championship remains Declan Bonner's priority, however. "I knew we were going to be very, very short in terms of experience. We have a lot of young lads that have shown they are capable now of playing at this level.
"We want to stay in Division 1 but it is not going to be the be all and end all if we don't," said the Donegal boss.
It's a measure of Dublin's strength in depth that though missing half their All-Ireland final attack, they still reached double figures for their points tally - with all but two points of their 0-20 coming from play.
Eleven different players got on the scoresheet while all six starting forwards scored from play. Less satisfactory from their perspective was coughing up three goal chances, the unravelling of their kick-out strategy in the third quarter and their inability to break Donegal's momentum during that spell.
But Donegal had more profound issues - particularly in the first half when they effectively lost the game.
Goalkeeper Peter Boyle opted mostly for long kick-outs but with the ball hanging in the air against the wind, the strategy offered Dublin a platform to attack and three of their 11 first-half points were the direct results of turnovers from Boyle's re-starts. Brian Fenton was running the game from the middle third, so much so that Donegal replaced Nathan Mullins - the only St Vincent's player on view - after just 27 minutes.
Niall Scully tormented the Donegal rearguard, kicking four points from play and though Colm Basquel blazed over their only goal chance after 15 minutes, it wasn't a pivotal moment.
Indeed, when Ciarán Kilkenny kicked Dublin's 13th point in the 37th minute to extend their lead to seven, the contest looked dead.
McBrearty's tour de force dictated otherwise, though the gamble of springing Murphy off the bench backfired as he squandered three point chances, including what looked like a straightforward-looking free. Dean Rock did likewise - missing a kickable free after his late introduction.
So like a good wine, the game - played in mostly appalling weather conditions - matured with age, even if the result was blindingly predictable.
What's frustrating from a Donegal perspective is that they have played decent football during parts of all three games but have nothing to show for their efforts in terms of league points.
"We definitely deserved something out of the Kerry match, the Galway game, we just had chances but didn't take them, same as the second half here," suggested Bonner.
"We played well in the second half, I think at one stage we kicked eight points to three and we had a few opportunities and dropped a few short. Again a team of Dublin's quality you're going to be punished and we are so disappointed that we didn't get a result."
Next up for the Dublin is a road trip to Castlebar on Saturday week for a repeat of the All-Ireland final clash against Mayo who are pointless after three rounds.
They can expect no mercy from the visitors.
Scorers - Dublin: N Scully, C Basquel (1f) 0-4 each; B Fenton, C Kilkenny, P Mannion (1f) 0-2 each; E Lowndes, B Howard, P Andrews, E O'Gara, C Reddin, P Small 0-1 each. Donegal: P McBrearty 0-7 (3f); R McHugh, S McBrearty, J Brennan 0-2 each; L McLoone, M McHugh 0-1 each.
Dublin - S Cluxton 7; D Byrne 6, P McMahon 6, E Lowndes 7; J Cooper 7, J McCarthy 7, J Small 7; B Fenton 8, M D Macauley 7; B Howard 7, C Kilkenny 7, N Scully 8; C Basquel 8, P Andrews 6, P Mannion 6. Subs: E O'Gara 6 for Andrews 46; C O'Sullivan 5 McMahon, D Rock 5 for Macauley 66; C Reddin for Scully 73; P Small for Basquel 73.
Donegal - P Boyle 5; E Doherty 7 C Ward 7, E B Gallagher 7; R McHugh 7, L McLoone 6, T McClenaghan 7; N Mullins 4, H McFadden 6; M McHugh 6, S McBrearty 7, C Thompson 6; P McBrearty 9, O MacNiallais 5, J Brennan 5. Subs: S McGonigle 5 for Mullins 27, N O'Donnell 5 for Thompson 43, M Murphy 4 for MacNiallais 55, C McGinley 4 for M McHugh 65, M O'Reilly for S McBrearty 68, P Brennan for R McHugh 72.
Ref - J McQuillan (Cavan)