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Monday 20 August 2018

Durcan: last man standing

'Keeper savours final date with Kerry 'kings'

HIS kick-outs are a major weapon in the arsenal of Jim McGuinness, but there's more to goalkeeping than accurate footwork off the ground or safe hands in the air, for that matter. Sometimes, it's simply about getting in the way - any body part will do.

Donegal would not be preparing for an All-Ireland final next Sunday but for Paul Durcan's right shin bone. The man himself reckons it was his knee that came to the rescue, but a slow-motion replay confirms otherwise.

Either way, there is little disputing the probability that Dublin - not Donegal - would be gearing up for Kerry if Diarmuid Connolly had found the Hill 16 net in the 24th minute of their All-Ireland semi-final.

The holders led by double-scores - 0-8 to 0-4 - at the time. A seven-point deficit, surely, would have been a bridge too far for Donegal ... especially against a Dublin forward line that thrives on the oxygen of goals.

This was the unmistakable feeling in the ground. As the save was replayed, RTÉ co-commentator Martin Carney spoke for many when he said: "A goal at this stage, I think for Dublin, would have ended the game as a contest."

Question is, did the Donegal players feel likewise? "I don't think he hit it well," Durcan demurs, making a valid point about Connolly's low connection. "I just got the body down and got a knee to it and it didn't fall to one of their players, which was good.

"There were a few turning points. Possibly we shouldn't have been as far behind as we were. We dropped three balls into the goalkeeper's hands, which is a no-no against Dublin because they will punish you from those. We were struggling at the time but, in fairness, Christy (Toye) made a big impact when he came on."

This softly-spoken giant then reminds you that Dublin had two goal chances in the midst of their purple patch. Even before his own save, Neil McGee "did brilliantly" to put off Bernard Brogan as he arced his body to try and fist home Eoghan O'Gara's less-than-inviting assist.

"Defensively we weren't performing at the time. We got the word out that we needed to step it up and the boys did that straight away," he points out.

BOOMING

You know the rest ... Donegal caught fire to lead at the break. Thereafter, aided by some booming Durcan restarts soaring beyond midfield and exposing a Dublin half-back line gone AWOL, the biggest footballing ambush of the 21st century manifested itself before our disbelieving eyes.

"You have to savour it," says Durcan, of that 3-14 to 0-17 win. "Dublin have been the best team in the country in the last few years, bar 2012 when we won it, so they have been there or thereabouts every year. You definitely have to savour that. But, listen, Monday you have to get the head down and look forward to what is the main prize."

At this frenzied All-Ireland time of year, living in Dublin is probably no bad thing for the Four Masters custodian - even if he misses out on some of the earlier summer homecomings.

"There is one journey you want to be making and that is after the All-Ireland final," he points out. "Dublin is where the work is, so I don't mind. I love living in Dublin. Very happy there. It doesn't bother me."

It means, though, that Durcan and a coterie of capital-based players travel home just once a week for training. Otherwise they train under Trim native Eugene Eivers, a sports lecturer in Blanchardstown IT and one of Donegal's strength and conditioning coaches.

When the students are off college, that could mean a training core of just three or four. It sounds problematic, from a coaching perspective, but Durcan maintains otherwise.

"Eugene is very good at what he does and he make it easier. It's always sharp. The facilities up there are second to none," he explains. "We are very lucky to have that on our doorstep. I don't find it too bad ... then you get down on the Thursday night and play ball with the boys."

Then, of course, there is the occasional bonus of being ferried to training in Ballybofey via helicopter, as happened for one session after the Dublin semi-final. The flight to and from Weston Airport shaved almost five hours off the round trip. In the race for Sam, every minute counts. "It was the first one this year," Durcan confirms. "I suppose when you get to an All-Ireland final ... and there is a business man who put it on for us, the treasurer of the county board knows him, so thanks to Donagh Kelly for doing it."

GLORY

Now aged 30 and a decade on from his SFC debut, Durcan has seen it all and belatedly won plenty too, including a league Division One title in 2007, three Ulster medals in the last four seasons, with the crowning glory of All-Ireland honours and All Star recognition in 2012.

How, though, will next Sunday compare to two years ago? "I don't think it's better but ... you can savour it (the lead-in) a bit more," he says. "It's an All-Ireland final; it's special. It's a huge challenge - you are coming up against the kings of football, in my eyes, since I was young."

Speaking of kings, last word on that semi-final. Stephen Cluxton is widely acclaimed as an all-time great, not just for his goalkeeping prowess but for his profound influence in terms of Dublin's game management.

Against Dongeal, whereas Durcan recovered from some early restart trauma to launch several decisive scoring plays during the second half, Cluxton still managed a success rate of over 85pc from Dublin's kickout. All that while his team was in the midst of an unfolding crisis.

"Look at the stats, his were way above our own," Durcan concedes. "It seems, when he sees a man running, it is going to his chest. He's unbelievable. It's a joy to watch - not when you are playing against it - but you have to admire it. You think you are able to take him on at them but it's hard."

Still, with 70 minutes to go and having conceded just two goals in five summer outings, no 'keeper is better placed to assume his All Star mantle.

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