McCaffrey provides saving grace of petulant rematch
Dublin 2-10 Donegal 0-11
A SECOND-HALF wonder goal by Jack McCaffrey was one of the few highlights of this ugly, disjointed game, but 14-man Dublin didn't care after bagging their first points of the season.
Despite the protests of both sides beforehand that it wouldn't be a grudge match for last summer's All-Ireland semi-final, that's exactly what it looked to be.
It was a game punctuated with six silly skirmishes and flare-ups that completely undermined it, especially the second half and both sides were guilty.
Kevin McManamon was dismissed, for a second yellow, after 45 minutes and Michael Murphy got a black card in the dying minutes, but had referee Maurice Deegan been more judicious with his cards (he only showed four yellow) a few more might also have got their marching orders.
Yet there was no reaction or condemnation from their managers afterwards, who produced the usual straight-faced repudiation.
"When one team plays defensive football and one team plays attacking football, the two collide sometimes and that's the fall-out," said Dublin boss Jim Gavin. "We're very happy with how our players held their discipline and I'm satisfied with how we performed."
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher was equally absolving: "Them things go on, I don't think there was too much out of order. There was a lot of competitiveness and a lot of physicality out there and to be fair to Maurice Deegan, I thought he let it flow as best possible."
Had Deegan given Murphy a card of any kind for coming in late on John Small early in the second half it might have calmed things down, but the Donegal full-forward mystifyingly escaped any censure and thereafter things escalated all around the pitch.
The tone was set by a particularly physical and attritional first half and though they were largely accidental, both sides lost two men each to injury by the 20th minute.
Deegan also made a few decisions that infuriated players, but to blame him would only exonerate far too many who were guilty of reckless tackles and sly digs.
He needed three pairs of eyes to keep up with all the little spats that were being played out in front of a large 22,968 crowd.
In the midst of it all some good football flourished briefly, mostly from Dublin, though Donegal's Paddy McBrearty also produced some beautiful touches.
The Dubs only had four of last August's starters compared to Donegal's nine and while they once again squandered some good goal chances, Cormac Costello vitally got one after just six minutes, with McManamon, excellent before his departure, providing the inch-perfect pass that tore a hole in the blanket defence.
Costello also had an excellent first half when McBrearty and Michael Murphy's shooting kept Donegal within a point (1-5 to 0-7) at half-time.
Paul Durcan's first return to Croker since gifting that goal to Kieran Donaghy didn't turn out too well.
Dublin's first goal came off a poor kick-out and when trying to save it, Durcan picked up a bloodied eye that needed stitches and Michael Boyle had to deputise.
Cruciate victim Ciaran Kilkenny finally made his long-awaited return for the Dubs when he replaced the injured Tomas Brady after 19 minutes and Gavin was understandably pleased with his contribution.
Donegal's Colm McFadden and Neil McGee, and Dublin's Bernard Brogan also made their first appearances of the year off the bench, but McCaffrey's arrival was the most influential.
Dean Rock's impeccable free-taking had Dublin still a point ahead as it approached the hour when the UCD medical student produced a lovely shimmy to score an inspirational point and, in the 63rd minute he produced one of his trademark solos up the pitch to blast a screamer high into the Donegal net.
"Yeah, a typical Jack McCaffrey goal, hit with venom," said Gavin. "He had a very good game with his college during the week, that's why he didn't start. That's his third game in six days but that's the kind of fixtures list we're left with."
Donegal didn't help themselves with some terrible second-half shooting, albeit under heavy pressure from an improved Dubs defence where new centre-back Small, Michael Fitzsimons and Darren Daly swept up well.
Dublin, crucially, conceded only three points in the 25 minutes they were a man down and Ballymun's Davy Byrne put in an excellent shift.
It may have been disjointed and fractious but securing two points at home, before the league's three-week break and in a season that includes four road trips, including Kerry next, looked significant for the reigning two in a row Division One champions.
"If things go to plan we're going try our best to get another game or two in April," said Gavin. "That's the plan at the moment. If it works out it'll be fantastic but if it doesn't, we have a alternate plan (ready) to go."
Scorers - Dublin: D Rock 0-5 (4f, 1'45), J McCaffrey 1-1, C Costello 1-0, E O'Conghaile, D Byrne (Ballymun), E O Gara and C Kilkenny 0-1 each. Donegal: M Murphy 0-4 (2f), P McBrearty 0-4 (1f), C Toye 0-2, C McFadden 0-1.
Dublin - S Currie 7; M Fitzsimons 7, E Culligan 5, D Daly 7; J Cooper 6, J Small 8, E Lowdnes 7; D Bastick 6, E O'Conghaile 7; T Brady 6, D Rock 8, D Byrne (Ballymun) 8; K McManamon 7, E O'Gara 6, C Costello 7. Subs: D Byrne (St Olaf's) 6 for Culligan (inj, 16), C Kilkenny 7 for Brady (inj,19), J McCaffrey 9 for Lowdnes (48), P McMahon 6 for Cooper (60), B Brogan 5 for Costello (64), C Reddin for Byrne (70).
Donegal - P Durcan 5; E Doherty 6, E McGee 8, P McGrath 5; F McGlynn 6, K Lacey 7, M McHugh 7; N Gallagher 5, C Toye 8; R McHugh 7, M O'Reilly 6, O MacNiallais 6; P McBrearty 8, M Murphy 7, H McFadden 5. Subs: M Boyle 6 for Durcan (7, inj), N McGee 7 for McGrath (inj, 20), C McFadden 6 for H McFadden (54), D O'Connor 5 for Doherty (64), D McLaughlin for Murphy (black card, 68).
Ref - M Deegan (Laois).