Sunday 18 February 2018

The game everybody wanted needs to capture imagination

Damien Diver: Disappointed
Damien Diver: Disappointed
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

THE seagulls were circling earlier than usual in Croke Park on Saturday but they might as well have been vultures waiting to pick at the remains of Monaghan's season.

They'd go hungry, mind. Dublin don't leave too much behind when they fillet teams these days.

Monaghan had been reduced to dust with a first-half two-goal salvo. By the end, they were 17 points adrift but it could have been anything.

There was no let up as Dublin peppered Rory Beggan's goal in the second half with each sub introduced eager to make their precious minutes count. If anything, Dublin were wasteful with the game in the bag.

They are in the All-Ireland semi-final now and have cruised all the way there. Laois' performance, where they got to within 11 points of the All-Ireland champions, remains the most competitive game they have played.

But rather than just maintaining high standards, the numbers suggest they are improving game on game. For the fourth game in a row, they reduced their concession rate.

Monaghan's 11 point tally represented their best defensive performance of the year. Consider too that they are averaging just under 29 points per game and their dominance is clear.

How distant the memories of August nightmares must seem for Dublin now when the likes of Tyrone and Kerry would find new dastardly ways to humiliate the showtime team.

Back then, the 'hype' that used to build around the team was often blamed but you'd have been forgiven for leaving Croke Park wondering if anyone will lay a glove on them this year.

Other teams have had their moments but no one has been as utterly dominant as the All-Ireland champions.

Afterwards, Monaghan's manager Malachy O'Rourke managed a rye smile when asked what they were particularly good at. Nothing in particular, he said, just everything.

O'Rourke explained his thinking afterwards. Going man for man wasn't an option, he decided and opted instead to try and keep things tight at the back.

It worked for about 20 minutes but Dublin can do it every way. Bludgeon or scalpel, they will find holes and exploit them ruthlessly.

"They do a lot of things," O'Rourke said. "They have pace and power. Even at the back, they usually leave their defenders isolated and we thought we would be able to get a couple of one-on-one situations but they are very physically strong.

"Their pace and power running from defence, then they have quality forwards as well. You can keep them out for so long but if you give them any space at all they will punish you."

O'Rourke went further when he suggested that apart from boasting an array of superb footballers, Dublin also held an edge in terms of conditioning.

"A lot of teams in Ulster would count us a fairly physical team but there today they looked a step up from that."

It's over to Donegal now to test Dublin in their own unique way. Billed as the team equipped to frustrate Dublin, they were good in patches only against Armagh.

Jim McGuinness deferred his media duties to selector Damien Diver so he could take his seat in time for throw-in of the second game and he'll have been impressed with what he saw.

"We're disappointed," Diver said. "It's a funny feeling in the dressing-room. We know the level we can play at and we didn't come anywhere near that today.

"There were glimpses of it at times but in general we were well below par. There's no obvious reason for that. The game-plan was there but we just didn't come up to the standard you need to be at to implement it.

"It's important that we get more intensity into our play. Everyone knows the level Donegal have been at for the past few years and today we didn't come up to it."

So, the game the neutral wanted to see is here. There'll be an even greater than anticipated clamour for that game to live up to its potential as the football championship has only flickered with life at times.

All three of the sides left will fancy their chances but to this point, Dublin have looked ominous as they head towards a first back to back league and championship double in 82 years.

Outwardly, Jim Gavin was an placid as ever. Another demolition job but the superlatives were never going to pour from the Dublin manager.

One more step on the road but now just two games from a third All-Ireland in four years and obvious comparisons with Kevin Heffernan's great team of the 1970s.

"Externally, what people say about the team, be it a positive light or a negative light, that's outside the players' control," Gavin said.

"That's not a distraction. From what I've witnessed, their mental resolve, their mental strength in applying themselves to whatever task is at hand.

"They know they're in a very privileged position to represent Dublin and with that comes a responsibility to try and get a performance.

"Internally, that's what they can control. I see them hold themselves accountable. They have great motivation and that's what they go after. Their ambition is a joy to witness."

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