All-Ireland semi-final of 2011 looms large as tactical masterclass

Little understood but much criticised at the time this match now appears definitive

Dublin’s Bernard Brogan followed by Paddy McGrath, Eamonn McGee and Neil McGee of Donegal in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin’s Bernard Brogan followed by Paddy McGrath, Eamonn McGee and Neil McGee of Donegal in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Sat, May 17, 2014, 14:00

On August 28th 2011, 81,624 people were in attendance in Croke Park to watch Dublin and Donegal play in an All-Ireland semi-final which, as soon as the whistle went, was cast as infamous: as an assault upon the better nature of Gaelic football.

The final score was 0-8 to 0-6, Dublin narrowly victorious after a match of extraordinary defensive intensity and therefore overcoming the scarring legacy of three successive All-Ireland semi-final defeats. In RTÉ’s television studios, the jury was swift in its denunciation and placed the blame squarely at the feet of the defeated Donegal team and its manager, Jim McGuinness. Pat Spillane, Colm O’Rourke and Joe Brolly were gravely offended by the spectacle and issued a volley of memorably wounded soundbites, including Spillane’s “I have seen the apocalypse in the last 38 minutes.”

The general consensus was that Donegal’s heavy emphasis on defence marked the nadir and that their exit from the championship was good riddance. Besides everything else, it gave the country the opportunity to watch a Dublin v Kerry All-Ireland final. The popular narrative goes that McGuinness and his acolytes f**ked off back to the Hills, considered the wise admonishments issued from the Establishment and devised a more palatable counter-attacking game for the summer of 2012, during which they defeated Cavan, Derry, Tyrone, Down, Kerry, Cork and Mayo on the way to claiming the Ulster and All-Ireland championship. They were considered fit for society again. But three summers on, there is a good argument to be made that that notorious afternoon against Dublin was Jim McGuinness’s finest hour as a coach. Because it was first ever attempt at Gaelic football’s version of the perfect game.


Maturing Dublin side
Actually, it wasn’t quite an hour. One fact jumps out from that semi-final, one that seems unbelievable as this year’s summer football carnival begins to take shape this weekend. That is, a Dublin team playing in Croke Park managed its first point from play after 50 minutes, bringing their total to 0-3. And this wasn’t just any Dublin team: it contained Stephen Cluxton, Cian O’Sullivan, Rory O’Carroll, James McCarthy, Ger Brennan, Michael Dara McAuley, Paul Flynn, Alan Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan and, before the game was through, Kevin McMenamin, Eoghan O’Gara and Philly McMahon. It was much the same Dublin team which has for the past year simultaneously thrilled and terrified the public with the exhibition of total football

– Brazil in sky blue – under the tutelage of Jim Gavin. There is no doubt that the group is more advanced now and emboldened by having won two of the last three All-Irelands.

However, it is all but impossible to imagine these Dublin players not scoring from play in an entire half – or producing just 0-2 in that half. As well as having a long-range sharp shooter in Cluxton, the Dubs have exceptional free-takers in their forward ranks. But of the 10 first-half frees Donegal conceded on that fretful afternoon, precious few were within scoring range. The discipline and concentration and collective organisation was profound and unstinting: it was unprecedented. It was, lots of people said, something that had never been seen before.

Imagine that! In most sports, particularly one with a 125-year history, such a radical innovation would be the subject of much intrigue and fascination. Here was a manager of a county team with a tradition of playing football with abandon coming up with a sophisticated trapping defence which had flummoxed one of the most exciting forward lines in the country. Donegal and McGuinness had taken emphasised defence .

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