dublin left dazed by donegal show
Defensive naivety scuppers Blues as Glensmen march on
BEFORE throw-in, no one saw it coming. After five minutes, with Dublin kicking four stunning points to lead by three, we all sat back and prepared for the inevitable. And after 27 minutes, when Diarmuid Connolly sold a slick dummy on the way to kicking his third point, the All-Ireland champions were once again five points clear.
Home and hosed. All over bar the shouting.
And then, what unfolded before our initially disbelieving eyes was one of the great Gaelic footballing ambushes of the 21st century.
Long before Joe McQuillan sounded the last rites on their Sam Maguire defence, it had become abundantly clear that Dublin were a busted flush while Donegal were back in their 2012 pomp and dreaming of Kerry in the final.
If anything, they were even better than two years ago because Donegal were never such long odds that summer. Nor did they ever face such a daunting position, trailing heavily to a team that were bypassing the 'blanket' by kicking long-range points for fun.
What happened next? That depends on your partisan persuasion. Donegal fans rightly wallowed in the stunning execution of a tactical master plan, copyright Jim McGuinness.
Meanwhile, the shellshocked masses in Sky Blue lamented the tactical naivety that underpinned this six-point defeat and (let's be blunt) the lack of leadership in the midst of unfolding crisis.
Three years ago, McGuinness almost upset the odds against Dublin by playing 14 men behind the ball, his drastic blueprint ultimately undone by a failure to create enough opportunities of their own. Six points will rarely if ever win an All-Ireland semi-final.
Yesterday, in front of 81,500 witnesses, they went score-crazy while exposing the myth of Dublin's invincibility in their supposed cakewalk to the league and championship 'double double'.
Donegal defended diligently, as per the norm, but counter-attacked in thrilling fashion and finished up with a staggering tally of 3-14 (all bar four points from play) to win by six points.
In truth, 3-14 could possibly have read 5-12: Colm McFadden was content to fist over in the 40th minute with Dublin's defence in disarray and then Ryan McHugh was later denied a hat-trick by Stephen Cluxton's tip-over.
How did it come to pass? First up, McGuinness deserves enormous credit for devising a strategy that would unhinge a free-scoring team that had averaged over 2-22 per game en route to the last four. His players merit equal praise for having the belief, patience and savvy to implement the plan.
Dublin, however, were complicit in their own downfall. Why didn't they keep Rory O'Carroll on goalmouth sentry (by marking McFadden, for example) instead of having him roam out the field on a number of different nominal full-forwards?
More crucially, why didn't they play a sweeper in front of that frequently and all-too-easily exposed full-back line? Or at least have a centre-back determined to hold the middle?
These are big tactical conundrums for Jim Gavin and his selectors to ponder over the next five months, before next year's Allianz League offers a belated chance to right the myriad wrongs of this Croke Park implosion.
Dublin hadn't leaked three goals since last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry. All the signs, prior to yesterday, were indicative of a much-improved defence ... now, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we are all revisiting the dubious merit of walloping Laois, Wexford, Meath and Monaghan by a cumulative 60 points as road-testing for a semi-final showdown with Donegal.
Several times during that third quarter when Donegal so often go for the kill, the holders were unhinged by a rudimentary long kickout bypassing midfield. That resulted in McFadden's fisted point and also his decisive 46th minute goal, when Michael Murphy rose majestically to flick a Durcan delivery into the path of Neil Gallagher. Two passes later, McFadden was rounding Stephen Cluxton to tap into the net. The gap was out to eight soon after. Incredibly, it was all over bar the shouting.
By then, though, Dublin had long since mutated into panic mode. Our own suspicion is that they started too well: their ten first half points were all from play, the majority kicked from distance, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly leading the onslaught.
For over 25 minutes they played near-flawless football. In truth they could have been out of sight; but their first goal opening for Bernard Brogan (from Eoghan O'Gara's hand-pass) came to nothing and then an even better chance - for Connolly - was saved by Paul Durcan.
Three unanswered points approaching the half-hour mark gave Donegal a foothold, and belief soared when Cluxton came but failed to gather a high Rory Kavanagh delivery, the ball breaking via Michael Fitzsimons to McFadden, who fed the Kilcar dynamo for a low finish.
After a fascinating first half during which they weathered Dublin's best shots, Donegal improbably led by 1-8 to 0-10.
Three minutes after the restart, Anthony Thompson was teeing up the gloriously unmarked McHugh for a deftly flicked second goal. In that moment, you sensed that back-to-back was now an impossible dream.
Too many of us got lulled into believing that Dublin were different to and somehow better than all the previous champions who have tried and failed to defend their crown.
Now they must prove themselves all over again.