High defensive line backfires for Dublin
SO Donegal have retreated to the hills with a prize scalp under their oxter and Dublin will still be seriously hurting at the manner in which their championship summer came to such a crushing halt last Sunday.
Twice I've experienced the pain of All-Ireland semi-final defeats. Occasionally when life allows you draw breath on some idle Tuesday, you get a flashback of the paradise lost moment and think of the 'if only' scenarios that could have impacted on the result and possibly changed the championship record books.
Obviously the greatest regret that is attached to falling at the penultimate hurdle is that you miss out on playing on the biggest day in the football calendar, but at that very moment the small things can hurt just as much, such as the sense of finality that accompanies that full-time whistle when you're the wrong side of the result.
For starters it's the end of the weekly training schedule that has dictated your life for nine months. The field sessions, the hours of gym work and all those meetings end on the shrill of that whistle, where the novelty of being able to say "yes" to a social event is no consolation.
When you have been fortunate, like the majority of Dublin's current crop of footballers, to reach the pinnacle of your sport, I don't imagine it in anyway dilutes the emptiness and the pain. I would contend that it arguably hurts that little bit more because having tasted success you know the effort and sacrifice that's required to get back to that point again.
With 25 minutes gone last Sunday it appeared that the Dubs were on track to seize that opportunity once more, as Jim Gavin's tactics and the implementation of their game-plan was drawing Donegal out from their defensive shell, and had resulted in nine points from play and created two clear goal-scoring opportunities.
Where it went wrong from there will be Gavin's greatest source of frustration, but perhaps the foundation for Donegal's victory were laid in that opening half.
One of the strongest traits of this team since Gavin took over as manager has been the pace and accuracy of their foot-passing, where direct ball created countless one-on-one chances for their inside line.
To counteract Donegal's defensive cordon the Dubs struck for points from distance, and while Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly hit a combined 0-7 with some sublime long-range efforts, the downside was that Dublin's most potent line, their inside forwards, were seeing very little ball.
While this wasn't a problem when the Dubs held a five-point lead, as the game progressed their inability to get the likes of Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara into the game, due to a combination of some excellent defending and a reluctance to hit the occasional long ball their way, was probably best reflected in the fact that Dublin's only real goal-scoring chance of the second half came in injury-time.
In the opening period Donegal's press on Stephen Cluxton's kickouts was possibly a surprise but it didn't overly disrupt Dublin's supply line. What it did do perhaps was lull Dublin into thinking that Donegal were playing man-on-man, and therefore needed to be tracked at every breakdown in play.
This no doubt contributed assisting the role Paul Durcan played in Donegal's third goal as Dublin's half-back line, by doing what had proven the right thing up to then, found themselves too far into Donegal's half of the field leaving 40 metres of clear, green space between them and their full-back line, as Durcan's monster second half kick-outs sailed over their heads.
The late first-half scoring burst that bagged an unbroken 1-4 not only demonstrated how comfortable Donegal were at either shifting the ball through the hand or implementing the direct route via Michael Murphy, but it also hinted at the difficulties that were to come after the interval as Dublin struggled to restrict Donegal's progress when forced to defend on the back foot.
The ability of the Ulster champions to play their way around Dublin's high defensive line forced Gavin's troops into chase defending, so rather than being on the defensive side of the ball and in a position to confront and slow up Donegal's swift counter-attacking, they found themselves turning and chasing back the field in a desperate and mostly futile effort to shore the gaps at the back Donegal were clinically exploiting.
A point to the good at half-time having survived on scraps merely allowed Jim McGuinness to reaffirm his game-plan, and when the second goal that was so ruthlessly orchestrated and despatched arrived two minutes after the interval, it was the nightmare scenario for the Dubs as it now allowed Donegal to dictate the terms of the game and forced Dublin into the almost impossible mission of trying to find holes in a 13-man defensive shield.
In a game of inches we will never know what might have been had one of those first-half goals chances (Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly) hit the net rather, but on the basis of what this group has achieved,with back-to-back league and provincial titles and one championship defeat in two seasons, it is clear they have the mental resolve and desire to regroup and seek out those opportunities once again.
It has been a dark few days for Dublin GAA but this side will rise again.