Wednesday 26 September 2018

Dublin ready if Rory parks the bus

Donegal's last trip to Croker was a grim affair... this could be more of the defensive same but adaptable Blues should keep on winning

Dublin’s David Byrne is tackled by Donegal’s Ryan McHugh during their NFL Division 1 match at Croke Park. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Dublin’s David Byrne is tackled by Donegal’s Ryan McHugh during their NFL Division 1 match at Croke Park. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Donegal’s Martin McElhinney and Dublin’s James McCarthy (c) jostle during the second half of their Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 6 match at Croke Park last month. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

So then, what's it to be at Croke Park tomorrow afternoon - Death of Gaelic Football, The Sequel, or an unexpected feast of drama involving those familiar protagonists, Dublin and Donegal?

The instinctive response to that inflammatory question is to lob the query straight up to Donegal: "Well, it all depends on Rory Gallagher."

And, to a large extent, it does. Donegal are a better and more potent team than they showed on their last trip to Croker, just a fortnight ago, when they went so far as to park 15 men inside their own '45' during the first half and asked Dublin to fire their best shot at the yellow wall.

But will they show a morsel more ambition in tomorrow's Allianz Football League Division 1 semi-final (4.0, live on TG4) ... or will it be more of the ultra-defensive same?


Whatever transpires, Dublin will adapt and modify their approach to meet the challenge. That's what they've been doing throughout their latest winning streak this spring (seven league victories and counting). Moreover, that adaptability has been a cornerstone of an unbeaten run that now extends to 20 matches (18 wins and two draws) and stretches way back to March 1, 2015, against Kerry in Killarney - the team's last defeat in league or championship.

Dublin are no longer the all-singing, all-dancing, all-out-attacking Globetrotters who left the defensive door wide open against Donegal in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, with chaotic consequences.

They remain, in essence, a team that loves to attack; a team built to press high, tackle hard and punish often.

But they aren't stupid about it either. Their last match against Donegal proved as much: patience has become their byword when opponents come to Croker and park the bus, as has become the increasing norm, especially for Ulster counties seeking to stymie and frustrate the Dubs.

In mitigation, as Gallagher reiterated in yesterday's Herald, there were factors at play the last day.


Donegal were minus two defensive mainstays, Neil McGee and Frank McGlynn; another (Karl Lacey) was starting his first game since last August; and thus "from a defensive point of view, we went with a certain amount of protection."

Gallagher added: "We like to feel that we can put up some big scores. We feel we can play both - but it's up to us to get the balance right."

A cursory glance at their league statistics proves his contention ... but dig down a little deeper and those stats reveal another, more ominous trend.

Donegal's overall scoring total (8-84) looks pretty healthy when you consider that the table-topping Dubs have amassed just five points more (8-89).

But here's the rub: the (then) rampant Tir Chonaill men had already clocked up 6-43 after three rounds but they've managed just 2-41 in their last four. Thus, the average has dropped steeply, from over 2-14 to under 12 points per game.

This has not been offset by any defensive gain: they leaked 2-26 in the first three rounds (under 1-8 per game) and a further 4-52 in the next four (average 1-13).

This downward turn must be causing at least a few headaches in Team Donegal, whose league has been a tale of two halves - three wins on the spin before February was out, then four defeats on the bounce.

Yes, there are caveats - the most notable one being that their first three games came against Down and Cork, both subsequently relegated, and a then-labouring Mayo.

As the bar has been raised, Donegal have struggled to meet it: their first three losses came against teams who would reach the semis (Kerry, Roscommon and Dublin). However, they have no such excuses about last Sunday's trip to Castleblayney, and even less when you consider they led Monaghan by 1-4 to 0-0 after 20 minutes.

On the same day in Carrick-on-Shannon (don't ask!) Dublin maintained their recent trend of doing enough and not a whole lot more.

What if?

Roscommon wouldn't have been flattered if their late comeback had yielded a draw, instead of a 'what if?' one-point defeat after a missed free at the death. Three of Dublin's other six games have been won on similarly slim margins - they beat Mayo by two points, Monaghan by one, and required a James McCarthy goal deep in injury-time to see off Cork by four after a storming second half fightback.

What all of this proves is that Dublin - no matter what 15 Jim Gavin puts on the pitch - are an increasingly resolute bunch. Maybe this is the greatest long-term dividend of winning All-Irelands: the inner-confidence to stave off panic, to keep on probing, to believe that victory is never beyond reach.

Gavin has kept on winning while delving deep into his panel. Rarely this spring have we seen Dublin take the field with a selection that closely mirrors either the team of last September or their likely '15' in June. Many fringe players have been given their chance.

As for this weekend, there will be no team announcement until after training this morning. We suspect a few familiar names may return to the fold - and we expect them to win.

Boylesports odds: Dublin 1/4 Draw 10/1 Donegal 7/2

Verdict: Dublin

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