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6 years since Dublin lost game in the all-Ireland

Much has changed since famous 2014 Donegal ambush

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Colm McFadden of Donegal scores his side’s third goal past Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton during the 2014 All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park

Colm McFadden of Donegal scores his side’s third goal past Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton during the 2014 All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park

SPORTSFILE

Colm McFadden of Donegal scores his side’s third goal past Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton during the 2014 All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park

In a world without Covid, the Sunday just gone would have been a standout date for the GAA. Barring a replay repeat of 2019, it would have brought the curtain down on another inter-county season with the All-Ireland senior football final.

The virus has a lot to answer for. It has played puck with our big ball body clock. Our seasonal circadian rhythms have been hijacked.

Whenever the madness ends, we may look back on 2020 as a tipping point that rescued club football and hurling from the vice-grip of inter-county, injecting unstoppable momentum into a concept, the split season, where very little previously existed.

But talk of calendars in meltdown evokes memories of a different form of madness. Monday of this week - August 31 - was the sixth anniversary of the last time Dublin lost a senior football championship match.

Ambush

At the time that result - Donegal 3-14, Dublin 0-17 - registered very high on the GAA Richter scale. This despite the fact that Donegal had lifted Sam only two years previously, and so their ambush of the holders was not exactly on a par with Leicester gate-crashing the Premier League elite or Buster Douglas giving Mike Tyson a bloody nose all those years ago.

Back then, Dublin were just another (albeit very formidable) team of champions. They had won in 2011 and '13, but they hadn't even solved the riddle of going back-to-back.

Now they've gone, wait for it, back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. All of which means that (a) if this year's delayed championship proceeds as planned and (b) an even bigger if, were Dublin to be toppled in the depths of winter, it will constitute a truly seismic shock.

Not because they are so far ahead of their nearest challengers - they aren't, especially Kerry - but because of its historical significance.

Just think about it: six years since last they fell on their championship swords.

Reflecting on that Donegal ambush through the prism of a pandemic, it's fascinating to consider all that had changed since 2014.

That Dublin performance has been analysed to death already; how the grisly outcome informed Jim Gavin's thinking and convinced him to alter the very shape of his team.

But perhaps it's more instructive to look at the respective team-sheets and consider how time has marched on for many of the participants.

Dean Rock came off the Dublin bench after 48 minutes, joining a team in disarray - Donegal had plundered their third goal two minutes earlier. Rock had been in and out of the team that summer but used primarily as a sub.

Six years later, he is on the cusp of becoming Dublin's all-time record scorer - a milestone that would have been surpassed already but for the rude intrusion of Covid.

Post-Donegal, the free-taking days of Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton were essentially over. Brogan missed two in that fraught second half.

Cluxton's long-range radar wasn't quite on the money; the goalkeeper would only convert one more placed ball on SFC duty, in the 2015 All-Ireland against Kerry.

The era of Rock, metronomic to a fault, was upon us.

Cian O'Sullivan's career as a Dublin midfielder ended that troubled day. Thereafter, he would be the No 6 mainstay of Gavin's defence. His intuitive knack to read danger and his sharpness to react (until recurring hamstring trouble dulled some of his pace) made O'Sullivan the perfect insurance policy against any porous repeat of Donegal '14.

Four of Dublin's six starting forwards - Alan and Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn and Eoghan O'Gara - have since retired.

Of the others, Diarmuid Connolly's county career from 2017 has been stop-start while Cormac Costello has struggled to establish permanent starting residency.

And yet Dublin's scoring returns have remained as prolific as ever - the ultimate barometer of their attacking strength in depth.

Ciarán Kilkenny returned from his 2014 cruciate injury to become string-puller in chief; Paul Mannion and Rock have become ever more central to the cause; Con O'Callaghan soon emerged as a plundering force of nature; Brian Howard and Niall Scully provided invaluable half-forward energy even as the influence of Flynn and Connolly waned.

There has been far less turnover in defence - proof that options here are less plentiful. Of the six who started against Donegal, Jack McCaffrey is the only one not available today after his shock June decision to step away from the Dublin panel.

Three of the six - Mick Fitzsimons, Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy, albeit more often at midfield - were still regulars as five-in-a-row history was made. Rory O'Carroll, back from a three-year sabbatical, was on the fringes in 2019 with Philly McMahon reduced to an impact sub role.

For Dublin to complete the search for six under Dessie Farrell, settling on the optimum defensive mix may well prove the new manager's greatest challenge.

Given what they achieved against Dublin that day, it must be a gnawing regret to Jim McGuinness and his players that they didn't finish off the job against Kerry in a desperately poor All-Ireland.

It was the last big chance for that group of players. Paddy McBrearty, an impact sub in 2014, still has relative youth on his side but ten of the starting 15 have retired.

The surviving five are Paul Durcan (home from Qatar and now sub 'keeper to Shaun Patton), Neil McGee, Paddy McGrath, Ryan McHugh and commander-in-chief Michael Murphy.

The telepathic tag team of McHugh and Murphy remain indispensable to Donegal hopes of challenging the Dubs of 2020.

If both counties survive their straight knockout provincial campaigns, they will meet again in another semi-final, this time under the December lights.

History repeating itself? That's still a long way off, in more ways than one.