Donegal's match made in Devenn'
Bonner's turn to learn lessons from Dubs says Brendan
BY now it has become a cliché. Every time Dublin face Donegal, all the pre-match debate is about how 2014 changed everything for Jim Gavin and his old swashbuckling ways.
That was Year Zero.
Beforehand, Dublin were happy to steamroll their way to double-digit victory, happy in the knowledge that whatever the opposition scored, they would score a whole lot more.
And after that shock-and-awe, 3-14 to 0-17 loss? No more Mr Naivety. No more walking into a tactical honey trap. Hello to Cian O'Sullivan as the glue at No 6 who binds it all together.
Does that mean Dublin are no longer a font of positive football? No. They are still the most thrilling around, just a lot more patient and streetwise.
All of which brings us to Donegal, and how they have learned from Dublin in the years since Jim 'Blackadder' McGuinness concocted his cunning 2014 ambush. The counties have met six times since then, five of those in the league; Dublin have won five times in Croke Park and drawn once in Ballybofey. Rory Gallagher was manager for the first five, Declan Bonner for the most recent.
Clearly, under Bonner, there's a new attitude sweeping through the dressing-room and onto the pitch.
But as Brendan Devenney, the former Donegal forward-turned-pundit, told Curveball, there has been a mindset change among most managers in the top-eight, who have concluded that "if you're going to win anything you've got to outscore teams, and not out-defend them".
Devenney highlighted the previous trend among Ulster teams in particular, whereby Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan were all "hammered" last summer "playing what you'd still call this slightly negative style of play".
The more positive approach under Bonner has another spin-off: the players are enjoying their football and that has manifested itself on the scoreboard. During their four-match run to the Ulster title, they averaged 2-19 per game.
Even during a league campaign that culminated in unlucky relegation, Donegal caught the eye.
Take their round-three encounter with the Dubs in February: when Brian Fenton made it a seven-point game straight from the second-half throw-in, you waited for a relatively young and callow Donegal to fade away.
Instead, by the three-quarter mark, they were just a point adrift. And by the hour-mark, inspired by Paddy McBrearty's outrageous point-scoring, they were again just one down but had the momentum.
However, chances went a begging and Dublin came with a late surge to win by five.
Still, it was arguably the most encouraging Donegal display against the Dubs since 2014 - even compared to last year's deadlock in Ballybofey or their 2016 quarter-final, when a Ryan McHugh goal and Diarmuid Connolly's 47th-minute dismissal opened a window of opportunity that they were unable to prise fully open.
Devenney was watching that day from the Hogan Stand press box.
"We were three or four points down and they had a man sent off, and we didn't go full-court press," he recalls.
"We needed to go at Dublin or your championship is over. I remember Ciarán Kilkenny was pointing and putting the ball about, and I'm up in the commentary going off my nut at this. I'm like, 'What are we doing?'. "
All changed? Up to a point. Donegal's ability to hurt Dublin may have been greatly compromised by McBrearty's cruciate injury but, even if he was fit, they aren't so foolhardy as to go all Harlem Globetrotters.
Knowing what awaited against Fermanagh's blanket, they regularly drew a mass of bodies back into their '45', but they also had defenders queuing up to counter at pace while they pressed up and put huge pressure on the Fermanagh kickout.
"You saw in the Ulster final, Donegal were willing to change their tactics. Dublin are willing to do that too. Go full-court in attack; drop players back. So I think it's that kind of fluidity that Donegal are trying to match up to here," Devenney concludes.
A case of learning from the best.