herald

Sunday 11 December 2016

Dublin stroll within sight of history

Brogan goal ends any pretence of a contest as league holders brush aside a Donegal team that looks to have fallen off shortlist for Sam

Bernard Brogan celebrates his goal against Donegal in their league semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Bernard Brogan celebrates his goal against Donegal in their league semi-final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

The second half was less than a minute old when Philly McMahon, advancing deep into Donegal territory, clipped an inviting through pass beyond Eamon McGee's reach and into the lap of Bernard Brogan.

Brogan did what he usually does in those scenarios - finished deftly to the net. We still had almost half of this Allianz Football League semi-final to run; we may as well have packed up our laptops and left Croke Park in that instant.

Dublin now led by eight points and the rest was a facile canter into yet another Division 1 decider.

On Sunday week they'll face Kerry, hoping to emulate the last county - ironically enough Kerry, back in 1974 - to win four NFL titles on the spin. They are that close to history, and given their jaw-dropping consistency over the past 13 months (19 wins and two draws in their last 21 league and SFC matches) you'd want to think twice before betting against them now.

Health

Still, the presumption here is that Dublin's pre-championship health will receive a far more thorough examination on April 24. Why? Because Kerry have looked like a team that means business during their (more modest) sequence of six straight victories, capped by their own ten-point amble past Roscommon in yesterday's opening semi-final.

We'll put it another way: on current form, Kerry appear the only team capable of mounting a serious challenge to Dublin's All-Ireland defence, not just their league crown.

As for Donegal, the uber-defensive negativity that permeated their most recent visit to Croker, a fortnight ago, was marked absent ... but the overall performance was actually more depressing, from a Tir Chonaill perspective.

It may 'only be the league' and winning here may have been well down Rory Gallagher's priority list; but this was their fifth loss on the spin and arguably the most emphatic evidence yet that Donegal no longer belong on the shortlist of Sam Maguire pretenders.

Players who were so central to the cause during the Jim McGuinness era - such as Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn - were either off the pace or largely peripheral. The frightening intensity that you associated with Donegal in their pomp was nowhere to be seen.

And here's the rub: having jettisoned the extreme version of blanket defence that was deployed against the Dubs last month, they ended up being plundered for 1-20.

And it could have been more: Brogan's goal apart, the Blues engineered three more goal chances. Brogan was denied a 28th-minute opener by the flying acrobatics of Rory Kavanagh; Donegal's actual netminder, Mark Anthony McGinley, repelled the lively Paul Mannion at his near post on 44 minutes; and, three minutes later, John Small had to settle for a point when Neil McGee hacked his low effort off the goal-line and over the bar.

By then, the only question was: by how much? In the end, Dublin settled for ten.

Jim Gavin will realise a far sterner test awaits against a Kerry team still smarting from their recent run of Dublin-inflicted Croker trauma. It's a challenge he'll welcome, coming as the preamble to what promises to be another cakewalk stroll through the killing fields of Leinster.

Still, notwithstanding the caveats about Donegal's tired efforts, there were multiple positives to be gleaned from Dublin's performance.

Ciarán Kilkenny took TG4's Man of the Match award back home to Castleknock, and it was difficult to quibble given his excellence in the first half, crowned by three sharp points.

But there was no standout magician in Sky Blue - rather a rock-solid collective who shone at different stages.

We'll start with Stephen Cluxton because, after a wavering 2015, the first half here offered a timely reminder of his mastery off the tee. He went long with his kickouts more often than the norm, and Paul Flynn (looking his sharpest so far this spring) and Brian Fenton (ditto) were the chief beneficiaries in a first half that ended with a wind-assisted Dublin five points clear (0-11 to 0-6) but not quite out of sight.

Cluxton's second half restarts were less on the money but, by that stage, the contest was already over.

An intriguing feature of yesterday's contest was not alone that Michael Murphy operated for longer than the recent norm at full-forward, but also that James McCarthy stuck with him throughout.

This time there was no repeat of the double-yellow dismissals that blighted their previous meeting, but Dublin's most consistent player of this campaign could be said to have won the match-up.

True, McCarthy picked up another yellow following a 32nd minute foul on Murphy, who duly converted to make it a three-point game - it seemed a manageable enough deficit given the wind, but then Mannion and McCarthy himself landed a brace of left-footed points to stretch the gap back out to five at the break.

With Murphy amassing five second-half wides and forcing a routine save from Cluxton via an injury-time pot shot, it made for a scoreless return from play for Donegal's frustrated talisman.

Profitable

Paddy McBrearty enjoyed a more profitable afternoon, but his eight-point haul, including three from play, merely served to emphasise the absence of an alternative threat.

Donegal had just three scorers; the multi-pronged Dubs 11, with four defenders sharing in the plunder.

Some of their points (Paddy Andrews' superlative first, Kilkenny's third, Mannion's over-the-shoulder second) were top drawer, while Brogan embellished his stats with a late brace.

All this without Eoghan O'Gara, the injured Kevin McManamon - or Diarmuid Connolly. Now there's an ominous thought, even for Kerry.

Allianz Football League semi-final: Dublin 1-20 Donegal 0-13

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