Six days that shaped the 'Decade of the Dubs' - Day 3: All-Ireland SF 2014, Donegal 3-14 Dublin 0-17
TWO League games, played within a year of one another, illustrate the effect losing to Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final had on Jim Gavin and Dublin.
Exhibit 'A' is the 2014 League semi-final against Cork in Croke Park.
At half-time, Dublin were eight points down.
Four minutes into the second half, they trailed by ten.
In the end, they won by seven, and some of Cork’s players wore the expression of men who never wanted to play football again.
Dublin outscored Cork by 1-13 to 0-1 over the final half hour of that game.
Eleven Dublin players made the score-sheet; a defender, a midfielder, five of the starting forwards and four subs.
They ran and kicked at Cork from all angles. Shot from everywhere. They scored 2-20 but also had 13 wides.
Michael Darragh Macauley, then reigning Footballer of the Year, rampaged all over Cork like a rhino who’d been released from captivity.
Their defensive energy was relentless, squeezing Cork’s kick-out, harassing any opposition player who had the misfortune to receive possession inside their own ’45.
They jammed Cork in. Turned them over with a sort of reckless, overwhelming aggression.
It was, you’d imagine, the quality and style of football Jim Gavin envisaged his team would eventually play when he took over from Pat Gilroy in late 2012.
Exhibit 'B' is Dublin’s sixth match of the following year’s competition, a home game against a Derry team almost relegated by that late March stage of the competition.
At half-time, Derry led 0-3 to 0-2. With ten minutes to play, the score was 0-4 to 0-4.
Only two of Dublin’s starting attack of Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Ciarán Kilkenny, Kevin McManamon, Dean Rock and Bernard Brogan scored all night and collectively, they registered just three points from play between them.
Dublin defended deep and in numbers but the lingering image of this game is a surreal period early in the second half, when Derry’s ball carriers repeatedly ran possession up to the half-way line and stopped.
When no Dublin player emerged from the thicket of bodies inside their own ’65, the player in red and white turned around and retreated.
No press. No attack.
A little under two weeks before the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, Donegal had their pre-match press conference in a hotel in Ballybofey.
There, Jim McGuinness compared the influence of Dublin GAA’s resources on the inter-county football landscape to Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea.
"It’s a different ball game," he suggested. "The level that they have taken sports science to. Nutrition, conditioning, the amount of coaches they have – it’s a professional set up in every aspect."
Ever-methodical, McGuinness knew precisely the effect his words would have.
Citing Abramovich made it an instant and tasty headline, containing direct quotes from a high-profile figure about an issue which was attracting ever-increasing debate.
Then, he took Donegal to Johnstown House for a five-day training camp and shut out the rest of the world.
By that stage, McGuinness had already promised his players he had deciphered a way to beat Dublin.
And over the next five days, he drilled them incessantly in those methods.
Sessions in the morning, afternoon and evening so by the time they left, on the morning of the All-Ireland semi-final, the Donegal players were running these patterns in their sleep.
The rationale behind McGuinness’s plan was simple. Dublin wouldn’t be pulling any rabbits out of any hats for Donegal.
They were All-Ireland champions, playing the most scintillating attacking football in memory, famously priced at 1/10 to win that particular game.
By what logic would they change now? As a starting point for a game plan, knowing exactly how the opposition will play is a good one.
More complicated was the tactical detail of the plan, although McGuinness went into great depth in his autobiography ‘Until Victory Always’.
After much deliberation, McGuinness decided to contest Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs and though Donegal only won three of 23 that day, they scored 1-1 off those three possessions.
They bluntly refused to kick ball from deep, regardless of the space in front of the Dublin full-back line and the pressure under which the Donegal ball-carriers came around the middle.
Hours of intense analysis, led McGuinness to the suspicion that Dublin deliberately invited that option in the way they set up.
And whatever Donegal did that day, they wouldn’t fall into any traps they already knew were laid.
But the great tactical coup of the day was Donegal’s own kick-outs.
Dublin had scored an incredible 2-8 off Monaghan’s restarts in the quarter-final but McGuinness, in his book, described how they would not only avoid such an onslaught, Donegal would use Paul Durcan’s kick-outs to open up the Dublin defence.
"Where we would pull everyone into our own half and alternate between Michael and Neil Gallagher as the target man for our delivery," he wrote.
"As Paul kicked, our half forwards were sprinting towards our half. But once we hit the 45-metre line, Ryan McHugh would slam on the brakes, turn and run the other way.
"It gave him two or three metres on his man and that is all Ryan needs.
"So we told Neil and Michael not to even bother trying to catch it; to just flick it into the path of our runners.
"Then we had a situation where we could carry the ball straight at their full-back line and give the ball when and where our forwards wanted. It should create overlaps for us. We got two goals in the second half from that alone."
On the day, Dublin actually led by five points in the first half and had a clear goal chance that Durcan saved from Diarmuid Connolly.
But Dublin couldn’t get inside Donegal, surviving instead on some incredible long range scores from Connolly and Flynn.
And as the slowly-tightening grip of Donegal’s resistance took hold of the game, they ran their plays to a tee, shredded the Dublin defence and pulled off the shock of the decade.
"On a personal level, I accept full responsibility for that performance," Jim Gavin asserted, some three weeks later at a promotional media event he hadn’t made a habit of attending in his time as Dublin manager up until that point.
After his public mea culpa, Dublin emerged for the 2015 season with greater variation in their defensive play - the most noticeable tweak being Cian O’Sullivan’s presence as a ‘holding’ No 6/sweeper.
"The next few years," Paul Flynn admitted last year, "even though we were really successful, they weren’t as enjoyable. It was a total change of our whole philosophy."
But the results were immediate.
In the 2014 League, Dublin conceded 8-94, an average concession of 16.8 points per match. That dropped to 2-78 for the ‘15 competition, just 12 point per game.
They conceded only four goals in the 2015 Championship and held Kerry to 0-9 in the All-Ireland final when they again captured Sam Maguire, a third title in a decade that had yet to witness their best work.
History will show the lessons from that day were absorbed quickly by Dublin.
And that they managed to turn their most crushing defeat into the greatest winning sequence in Gaelic games history.
Scorers - Donegal: R McHugh 2-2, C McFadden 1-3 (0-2fs), M Murphy 0-3 (2fs), P McBrearty 0-2, K Lacey, R Kavanagh, O MacNiallais, F McGlyn 0-1 each. Dublin: D Connolly 0-5 (1f), P Flynn 0-4, B Brogan 0-3 (1f), A Brogan, P Andrews 0-2 each, P McMahon 0-1.
DONEGAL: P Durcan; N McGee, E McGee, P McGrath; A Thompson, K Lacey, F McGlynn; N Gallagher, O MacNiallais; R Kavanagh, L McCloone, R McHugh; David Walsh, M Murphy, C McFadden. Subs: C Toye for Walsh (26), P McBrearty for McLoone (43), Declan Walsh for N McGee (57 black card) M McElhinney for Kavanagh (60), D O’Connor for McFadden (64), M O’Reilly for MacNiallais (68).
DUBLIN: S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, R O’Carroll, P McMahon; J McCaffrey, J Cooper J McCarthy; MD Macauley, C O’Sullivan; P Flynn, A Brogan, D Connolly; C Costello, E O’Gara, B Brogan. Subs: N Devereux for McCaffrey (ht), K McManamon for Costello (40), D Rock for O’Gara (48), P Andrews for A Brogan (53), D Daly for Cooper (62), P Mannion for O’Sullivan (68).
REF: J McQuillan (Cavan).