All-Ireland semi-final of 2011 looms large as tactical masterclass
Little understood but much criticised at the time this match now appears definitive
It could have made for good debate but the reaction was explicit precisely because the fear was that Gaelic football couldn’t cope with a defensive labyrinth. There was, in other words, a lack of faith and confidence in the sport itself. Donegal had breached some unwritten code: what they were doing just wasn’t football.
Not everyone shared that view. In the general consternation afterwards, the reaction of Dublin manager Pat Gilroy was not given sufficient attention. “I totally admire them. Total admiration. Why would you go out and leave space against a team who have kicked 22 points in the previous game?” he asked.
“Never saw anything like it in me life,” said Bernard Brogan afterwards. That day might have been the making of Dublin.
In the studio, Michael Lyster cut through the general condemnation to suggest: “But it was edge of the seat stuff?”
“It was,” agreed Spillane. “Today was a victory for Dublin and for Gaelic football.”
In any form of entertainment, edge of the seat, is as much as you can hope for.
Donegal versus Dublin in 2011 was all about that. In baseball, they prize the big, flamboyant score more than anything and the “home run” has become a general catch phrase for extravagant success. But baseball reserves the highest honour for a game in which the scorers are
bamboozled: a “perfect game” is a scoreless one. Nine innings without a hit or a walk or any player making base. It has only occurred 23 times in the history of baseball.
In the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, there was an attempt at a perfect game. It didn’t work but at least the imagination and the intent was there. The fear that Donegal would provoke similar counties (ie, those not supposed to win) into concocting equally diabolical systems did not materialise. Instead, the game became what it promises to be this summer: a pure, attacking shoot-out. Gaelic football adapted and responded because that’s what happens in sport.
Of the two full championships played since that 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, there have been good and poor matches and many vanilla games. But that Donegal-Dublin tie, despised and derided, is becoming what was obvious to anyone who watched it with an open mind that afternoon: a touchstone. It remains sharply defined and frequently referenced because it was rare and daring and because there has been nothing remotely like it since. High scoring games are fantastic (sometimes). But Gaelic football is secure enough to incorporate the other extreme as well, when defence is everything and the scores come so rarely that each registers like a mortal blow.
Some year – perhaps even this – a fearless manager is going to look back at that match and devise a defensive system that takes the idea of the shut-out one to another level. It is a fantastic notion: a big championship match in which a terrific attacking team fails to score.
If that ever happens, then Gaelic football will have its perfect game.