Dynamic Dubs raise the bar
DUBLIN footballers got the job done over 70 minutes on Saturday night. What happened in stoppage time merely iced the scoring difference cake.
As the final curtain came down on this year's Spring Series at Croke Park, an improbable nine points separated Dublin from Donegal.
This was thanks to Bryan Cullen's swashbuckling goal 25 seconds into added time; and then a second from Diarmuid Connolly, whose shot squeezed through Paul Durcan. The Vincent's man sauntered through acres of glorious space where once -- last August -- he'd have run into a Donegal brick wall.
The margin was obviously unkind on opponents who had drawn level in the 55th minute, but the moment Michael Murphy hobbled off with a knee injury soon afterwards, the game was effectively up.
Murphy is not just Donegal's attacking totem -- he is their attack. That may sound glibly dismissive of Patrick McBrearty -- a teenager of towering promise -- but that's how it seemed on Saturday night, especially in the absence of the hamstrung Colm McFadden.
In fairness to Donegal, their on-field alignment was more attack- oriented than last August, when they played 14 men behind the ball and invited Dublin to try their luck at breaching Fort Knox.
But, still, Murphy was at the centre of everything -- his six-point haul included two fine efforts from play and several booming deadball kicks.
It might be stretching credulity to say Dublin would have lost if Murphy had stayed in the full of his health: Jim McGuinness would only go so far as to argue (not unreasonably) that it would have been a "lot tighter" at the finish.
But the encouraging part for his counterpart, Pat Gilroy, is that Dublin aren't remotely so reliant on one attacking talisman.
They've been without Bernard Brogan all spring. On Saturday night, his brother, Alan, departed with a minor calf problem on the half-hour mark.
Eoghan O'Gara, who started March in a scoring flourish against Laois, ends the month on the injured list.
And, yet, the All-Ireland champions still conspired to shoot 2-16 -- all bar three points from play. They had 12 different scorers on the night. The two Deans, Rock and the livewire Kelly, came off the bench and landed a point apiece.
Afterwards, Gilroy pronounced he was happy with Dublin's intensity (a black mark against Down) and delighted, too, that their Division One semi-final fate is now in their own hands.
"They're going to be two tough games to get points from," he warned, looking ahead to next Saturday's trip to Mayo and then their Easter Sunday expedition to Cork.
If Dublin defeat Mayo in Castlebar they will ensure themselves a semi-final berth.
"I know the Armagh game turned out to be fairly easy for us in the end, but they were all tough games this year.
2It will be hard to get two points out of those last two, but I'd say two should be enough to get into the play-offs. It was important -- a win was very important."
This performance was not without its ropey patches, especially after half-time when the Murphy-inspired visitors drew level with four unanswered points inside eight minutes.
During this period, Dublin were turning over ball wastefully around the middle and you wondered if a relatively callow attack could chisel out the scores required in a white-knuckle ride to the finish.
"We gave them that opportunity with a lot of mistakes," Gilroy lamented.
"But I suppose we ended up with a fairly inexperienced team, and you'd have to be pleased by the way they turned it around in the last 15 minutes."
Different players stood up at different moments. Kevin McManamon wasn't foot-perfect but he frequently troubled Donegal's defence with his dynamism and directness -- his 0-3 haul would have read 1-2 but for a brilliant tip-over by Durcan.
But Dublin's best forward on the night, by our reckoning, was Cullen. This marginal vote was sealed by his stunning late goal, when he exploded through two would-be tacklers and then went for the jugular ... but even before that, the Sky Blue skipper had been busy around the breaks, showed his aerial prowess on Durcan's kickout, and kicked a sweet early point into the bargain.
While Dublin step up their play-off quest, Donegal are locked in a last-day relegation battle and will, more than likely, need to beat Armagh in Ballybofey.
Worryingly, for a team with such a parsimonious record through all of last year, they have leaked 8-64 in six league outings -- twice being plundered for 2-16.
"I don't think our fitness levels are at the same level as Dublin and you'd expect that," McGuinness reflected. "Generally speaking, we'll take a lot of positives."
And what did he make of Dublin? "In the first half they were very direct, even more so than last year," the Donegal boss replied. "They got at us very, very quickly and backed themselves to take us on. Kevin McManamon backed himself, Alan Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly... they've got great pace.
"Even the goal Bryan Cullen scored at the end, it came from nothing really.
"It was just in a split-second he decided to go and it was almost too late for the defenders to react, particularly when they're fatigued.
"They have that directness and a long-ball game from the middle of the park.
"When they don't kick it, they really go at you aggressively with it and I think it's a good mixture," McGuinness concluded.