As the Donegal squad made their way to the team bus after defeat to All-Ireland champions Dublin, pure disappointment was painted on the Tir Chonnaill men’s faces. Another year done and dusted with nothing to show for it and it is back to the reality of club football next week.
Going into the game, both teams were being questioned for different reasons. Could Donegal lift their performance from the fourth round qualifiers against Cork? Could they get over the ghosts haunting them from the Ulster final defeat at the hands of Tyrone?
On a more broad scale, Donegal were being questioned from the beginning whether this team of players had the legs to emulate the 2012 season or the 2014 game against Dublin.
Questions about the Dublin team also needed to be answered. The Leinster champions haven’t been challenged this year and they had lost key players in defence. Could they recover? How would they set up against a blanket defence?
But, as the Donegal players hopped on the bus to start their long journey home, most had answered the questions asked of them and some of Dublin’s too.
The Blues went through the motions in the first half stringing passes together and almost had a dream start finding their way to the goalmouth within minutes. Had it not been for Mark Anthony McGinley pulling off a great save, the Dubs could have been sailing from the start; and again when Diarmuid Connolly fluffed his lines sending the ball wide.
Dublin were clinical in attack in the first 35 minutes and showed their pretty side. They passed the ball fast, got ball into their forwards and took their scores brilliantly. With just three wides in the half, they managed to put nine points past Rory Gallagher’s men.
Donegal were in complete contrast to Dublin in that respect, putting eight shots wide, dropping several shots short and only registering four points on the scoreboard.
Jim Gavin’s men were extremely cute in the first half also, blocking off Donegal’s runners by cutting across their path and fouling outside of the referee’s view. It was a performance that pleased the home fans on the Hill. However, it was not without its mistakes.
Donegal’s defence held true to their physical nature putting in strong hits and surrounding the man with the ball. They managed to turn the ball over ten times in the first half, with half of those coming inside their own 13 meter line. A warning to Dublin that this would be no walkover.
In the second half, we saw a different side to Dublin; a side that you don’t see during the Leinster Championship or the National League.
As Donegal chased the game and put pressure on the Dublin backline, and asked questions of Dublin’s attack, the cracks that have been papered over began to show.
Enter the cynical play from Dublin. Poor discipline was the story of the Dubs’ second half.
Diarmuid Connolly was the first to go after a high tackle on Anthony Thompson, which was enough to merit a second yellow card. His foul was one of nine in the second half for Dublin and one of two red cards.
This slip in discipline allowed Donegal to get a foothold in a game which was almost over at half-time.
From seven points up at one stage in the game, down to two and in big trouble. When the pressure began to pile on the Dublin defence, its weakness became evident, committing three fouls within their own 21 metre line in the last five minutes.
Going forward in the second half also proved difficult for the Dublin team. A strong blanket defence implemented by Donegal showed another side to Dublin that had not been seen before the game.
A willingness to pass the ball over and back the pitch, retreating into their own half to keep possession even drew a few jeers from the home support.
The intent from Dublin to keep the ball was summed up when Ciaran Kilkenny received the ball in the opposition half and made a burst towards his own goal.
This is the side to Dublin that everyone thought was there, but nobody had frustrated them enough to bring out.
However, despite the extra man, Donegal just didn’t have that quality in the final third that Dublin had. Just when they could see a shimmer of getting back into the game, Paul Mannion burned Ciaran Gillespie up and placed cooly through McGinley’s legs to finish off the tie.
After the game was over and the chaos had ended, Colm McFadden confirmed his retirement from Inter-County football.
It is the end of an era for him and perhaps for Donegal in general who now have a period of rebuilding the side over the next few years.
Several players could be coming to the end of their careers in the Yellow and Green but some of the younger players have already implemented themselves on the team.
Eoin McHugh, Ryan McHugh, Gillespie and Hugh McFadden all made impacts on big games this year and proved themselves to be the future of Donegal football.
Colm McFadden ends his time as Donegal’s most capped player and highest ever scorer.