The second All Ireland Football Semi-Final is down for decider with Donegal looking to upset the odds by beating red-hot favourites Dublin. Enda Walsh is here with an in-depth look ahead.
Jim McGuinness will have his Donegal side ready for this titanic battle with Dublin. Before throw in, he will motivate his players, gather them in a huddle, restate the key points that his team has worked on for the past three weeks, and tell his men that there is unfinished business between these sides since their last encounter in 2011 – a match that will remain in Croke Park folklore for generations to come.
Since McGuinness has taken over as manager, his team has dominated the Ulster Championship, leaving a lasting legacy behind. He has transformed his team’s style of play, creating a system that opposition fear.
The man has one major blemish on his C.V. is a disappointing defeat to Mayo in the knock-out stages of the 2013 Championship; when hope was in the air of the ever exclusive back to back All Ireland titles. That year Mayo reached the final of the All Ireland, but came across a system that was unstoppable.
Dublin’s attacking play is seen by many as refreshing and a break from the so called ‘negative’ football that has crept into the game in recent years. The build-up play and scores they have mounted in League and Championship so far has been very impressive. It is evident that they have developed and evolved from last year’s impressive All Ireland winning team which in itself is an incredible achievement.
Dublin lost two close games throughout this year’s National League campaign against Cork and Derry. However, when it counted, come semi-final and final time, the real Dublin showed up, defeating Cork in the semi-final by seven points and Derry by fifteen points in the National League final. The Cork match showed the other counties in Ireland that the Dubs have a strong never say die attitude as well as an array of wonderful attacking players.
Goals are easy to come by for the reigning champions, they scored three in several minutes against Tyrone in the league and create numerous, at least five to six, premium chances per game. Sometimes a keeper pulls off a magnificent save, or a defender makes a last gasp block, or the player simply opts for a point because they are so far ahead. Against Monaghan in the quarter final they should have scored another two goals in the dying stages.
They run with pace and the speed of their attacks is frightening to behold. The Monaghan backroom team summarized Dublin well when they said, ‘they attack in waves, they keep on coming’. Their forwards are lethal, Alan Brogan is back to his best, Bernard Brogan is always a man for the big occasion, now supported with forwards who take the pressure of him. With their strength, speed and sight for a score, Eoghan O’ Gara, Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, and Kevin Mc Manamonhave skills to break down the tightest of defences.
It must be noted that Dublin have good defenders, markers and lighting runners, who sometimes do not get the credit they rightly deserve. They swarm the opposition right from the front, their attackers are the first line of defence. They make it impossible for oppoenents to get the ball out of their own half.
The scariest thing about this team is that they break teams down mentally. If teams are in the game with fifteen or twenty minutes to go, which is as rare as a Cavan man missing his free Christmas drink, Jim Gavin can bring on the most talented bench in the country. These players could start for the majority of county teams, including the top three to four teams in the country. When they do come on, tired legs and tired minds have to prepare for this physical and mental onslaught.
Joe Brolly remarked that the Monaghan players did not believe they could defeat Dublin and that their heads dropped when Monaghan conceded the first goal. When a Dublin forward is taken off and replaced by a fresher, and at times a more skilful player, then it becomes a psychological weapon for Gavin and a mental barrier for opposing players and coaches.
Dublin are more advanced than last year; their younger players have progressed, the team has bulked up in size – they have trained at least twice a day – now the entire squad has experience of winning provincial and All Ireland medals, and the hunger remains – to win back to back All Ireland Championships.
Brolly remarked that how Donegal were getting under Dublin’s skin – it was a reference to Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan who in recent months were comforting Brolly about how the way he ‘bigs up’ the Donegal team. These Dublin players will play with such intensity for the first twenty minutes, and try and demoralise and humiliate Donegal, just like they have done to all other counties so far this year.
They will hope to score more than their average of 2-22 this year. It would take a brave man to back against them, at 1/4 to lift the Sam Maguire, not many are doing so.
Gavin must be given credit, after watching Donegal convincingly win the 2012 All Ireland Championship – many teams began to mirror Donegal’s style of play. However, the Dublin manager stuck to his principles and the results that followed pleased supporters and fans of attacking football. Ironically, Dublin has now become the force that looks unbeatable and the only team that might be capable of defeating them is Donegal, a team two years ago that looked unstoppable.
Many neutrals hope that Donegal will provide a test for Dublin but no one is backing them, the bookmakers offering 7/1 for an upset. Some who once wanted the wheels to fall off the green and gold machine are now supporting the men from the hills for this one game to see if anyone can put it up the Dubs.
This game will have the entire country watching; men, women and children from every family will be divided when it comes to who to support. Fence sitting that day will be limited.
The first thing to note about Jim Mc Guinness is how cautiously he speaks; you can see the impact he has had on his players and background team well before throw in. Players are drilled not only on the pitch but they are also drilled mentally. Every player throws out similar sayings and attitudes, not only are they machines on the pitch but also off it.
Donegal, like all good sporting teams, concentrate on factors within their own control. Once players know their role within the system they become a very difficult team to defeat. Their record in provincial Championship is outstanding, three out of four Ulster Championships is incredible – no one from Donegal, or elsewhere, would have believed you if you told them that statistic four years ago.
The level of professionalism that McGuinness has brought to Donegal is a credit. They were a county once associated with more ‘team bonding sessions’ than any other county and they are now the most dominant team in Ulster.
For Donegal to defeat Dublin they need to reach the levels of 2012 and then surpass it. Dublin has yet to meet the improved Donegal, where they overturn the ball, break with runners and are efficient in front of the posts. But the question remains, is the Donegal of 2014 near the level of 2012?
A number of factors must be considered if Donegal are to stop Dublin. When Donegal won the All Ireland in 2012 every team tried to break down their defence which suited Donegal’s game plan. In 2013 teams copied their system and made it difficult for Donegal to win – the Mayo game being the one exception.
So when Donegal come up against the Dublin attack they might just welcome it, in a weird way, runners pouring forward from deep and six attackers being marked by thirteen men. If they can get turnovers and break at speed, then holes will develop in the Dublin back line. Colm Mc Fadden needs to rediscover the form of old and young Paddy Mc Brearty needs to step up when it matters, just like he did against Armagh in the closing stages.
Donegal will get turn overs, and the inside forward line must contribute on the scoreboard when they do get closer to goal. In 2012 it was impressive to watch the different scorers from all over the field. For example, Neil McGee was getting higher up the field than an inside forward, and then that same inside forward was pulling back out the field to to cover for McGee.
It is a difficult system to master but a system that is completely enjoyable to watch if you like the tactical side of things. Many questions still remain about Donegal; there is the so called decline of McFadden, the questions raised after last year’s demoralising defeat at the hands of Mayo along with the hunger of the players and management.
It is safe to say that the hunger question was answered well before Jim McGuinness’s ‘Jose Mourihno’ style celebration at the end of the Monaghan game. Donegal want the All-Ireland title back.
The year that Donegal won the All-Ireland title saw them lead in the majority of matches and keep their noses in front throughout. Mayo showed last year that Donegal are at their weakest when they are behind in games forced out of their comfort zone. Without taking anything away from Mayo’s victory, a combination of injury and tiredness helped Mayo into that lead.
With Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher and the rest fully fit, a lead like the one Mayo managed may be difficult for even the mighty Dublin to build. Although against Monaghan they dismantled the ‘blanket’ with ease. During the Mayo match, Donegal could not get close to the Mayo players, if they allow Dublin to open the same gaps then they will be in for a horrid time and a humiliating experience.
Finally, ‘the scariest thing about this team is that they break the opposition down mentally’. When the system is working at 100% it is almost impossible for opposition players to shoot. Most opportunities arrive from dead ball situations and even then, chances are rare.
In the Ulster final Conor Mc Manus, one of the best forwards in Ireland, scored his first point from play in injury time at the end of the second half, and even that was an attempted pass into the danger area so they could try for a goal. Look at the year Donegal lifted Sam Maguire. They kept great forwards scoreless.
That becomes a mental barrier, players are replaced and more brought on. Then these substitutions try to contribute and become wrapped up in this wonderful system. Not many teams have talented subs at their disposal, well, maybe there is one? Sp an utterly fascinating contest lies ahead.
Another aspect that will stand to Donegal is the games that they have won this year. They beat Derry in their own backyard, then Monaghan for the first time in over thirty years in a chamionship encounter. They finally overcame an Armagh team in Croke Park after coming from behind with two minutes to go, breaking a huge mental barrier for the more senior players in the team considering their record against the Orchard men.
At 10/1 Donegal are the least fancied team left in the Championship for outright success, but that will not lower any spirits in the Donegal camp. They were underdogs against Kerry in 2012, and likewise for the Cork match. They were also unfancied this year against Derry and most recently against Monaghan.
Look up ‘bookie bashing’ in the dictionary Donegal’s name will not be too far away. They have a sense of belief and a defiant demeanour about them that will help them to believe that a result is not impossible, this is a team of Ulster and All Ireland medalists and when a team faces Dublin every bit of experience is needed.
Both Jim Galvin and Jim Mc Guinness have created two fascinating styles of play. The managers, players and supporters will shake hands before and after the game, a game where thirty amateurs will take to the field in one of the most anticipated games of Gaelic Football to be played in Croke Park in recent times.
This game has it all, defence versus attack, philosophy versus philosophy, Jim versus Jim. Let’s hope it lives up to the hype.
Prediction: Like many, Ciaran Whelan laughed off suggestion on The Sunday Game that this match will be evenly contested remarking that he ‘won’t be buying into the hype in the coming weeks’ and even Joe Brolly compared Dublin to the great Kerry teams of the past and he pondered as to how long they could possible conquer.
Hopefully Donegal can reach the levels that saw them lift Sam in 2012, a level that will give Dublin their biggest test in the past two years. If they do not reach these levels, there is only going to be one winner.
Enda’s heart says Donegal.
Enda Walsh, Pundit Arena.