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

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


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 .

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.

Perfect game
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.

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