Donegal dig out deserved draw after Dublin dogfight

MacCumhaill Park draw stretches unbeaten run to 32 league and championship games

Donegal 2-5 Dublin 1-8

This was the real stuff. A howling gale, a crowded house and two teams going at it full-tilt, re-igniting an old rivalry.

Michael Murphy’s dead calm equalising free in the 71st- an old school right-footed curling free into that big February gale- earned a young Donegal team a hugely significant draw against the All-Ireland champions.

Dublin, meantime, exited MacCumhaill Park muddied but unbeaten now for 32 league and championship games. They are tantalisingly close to creating another bit of GAA history (Kerry team of the 1930s were unbeaten in 34 games).

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Donegal, in customarily perverse fashion, didn’t look like scoring at all in the first half and then dealt Dublin two joker cards in just over a minute: a brace of snap goals against the run of play which made the half-time score 2-2 to 0-5.

It was a break that left Jim Gavin and Dublin with much to discuss at half time and their response was bright. Gradually, the old guard were introduced to the afternoon- Michael Darragh MacAuley at midfield, Kevin McManamon and Paul Flynn in the forward unit and they steadily went about notching up 1-3 without reply.

The goal was a classic Dublin stealth strike, with McManamon making the key incision for Niall Scully’s low, cool finish in the 52nd minute. That goal marked another really impressive match for Scully, whose considerable ball skills are deepened by a seemingly endless appetite for hard work.

Donegal’s goals came without warning and were lit with a characteristic contrary streak. For most of the half, their attempts to break from deep were neutralised by a sucession of frees which neutralised Donegal’s high-octane ball carriers from getting into sync.

In the 32nd minute, Murphy re-started play from midfield and Frank McGlynn, the pick of the Donegal men in a highly efficient first half hour, motored through the middle with the ball. His lay off to Jason McGee was perfectly timed and the young Cloughaneely man forced a snap-save off Cluxton. Dublin couldn’t clear; Jamie Brennan squared the ball and McGee cracked a goal from the ground.

From the kick-out, Donegal broke forward again, with Brennan turning Dublin’s last line and causing havoc: the ball squirted into the path of Ryan McHugh who, not for the first time, deftly goaled against the Dubs.

That unexpected sequence of play visibly emboldened Donegal. Predictably, they returned to a more defensive set-up for the occasion but while they gave Dublin the run of the town outside the 45 in the first half, free to leisurely swing the ball from coast to coast and pick their angles of attack, Donegal’s collective pressed up with more aggression in the second.

An exhilaratingly powerful early burst by Murphy- who was a colossal influence here – resulted in a pointed free and a four point lead. However, they lacked any real target in their inside line- which was, for many periods, an imaginary line – and were gradually reeled in.

A fine point on the run from Davy Byrne put Dublin back in control, 1-08 to 2-03. But Donegal's attitude over the closing eight minutes was hugely encouraging using their complex, high-wire running game to work the ball deep into Dublin territory and earning frees from Ciaran Thompson and that equaliser from Murphy.

Crucially, they gave Dublin’s kick-out a rigorous stress-test in that period and had possession in the 74th minute, flicking the ball around and probing for space to try and kick the winner when the final whistle went.

Eric Lowndes didn't seem guilty of much in his tussle with Eamon Doherty which led to Donegal's injury time free. Still, Donegal's performance deserved something here: they fired four wides into the gale in that second half and preserved with their intricate fast passing game in conditions that were treacherous.

Both sides seemed satisfied as they trooped off. The seventy minutes once again illuminated the huge burden of responsibility which Murphy ships: he is the engine of the team. But the return of Frank McGlynn, at once a fastidious house-keeper and hugely creative attacking force, is invaluable also. They head to Cavan for a Saturday night game against the old aristocrats.

Dublin, meanwhile, will eye up Mayo as the question becomes louder. Can anyone stop them? And if so, who?

DONEGAL: 1 MA McGinley; 2 P McGrath, 3 N McGee; 4 E Ban Gallagher; 5 R McHugh (1-0), 6 C Ward, 7 P Brennan ; 14 M Murphy (0-2), 8 J McGee (1-1); 17 F McGlynn, 11 M O'Reilly, 10 E McHugh; 9 C Thompson (0-2 free), 15 J Brennan, 12 E McHugh.

Substitutes: 21 H McFadden for J Brennan (40 mins), 13 D O’Connor for 7 Brennan (46 mins), 18 E Doherty for 10 M Carroll (57 mins), 20 S McBrearty for 12 E McHugh (63 mins),

DUBLIN: 1 S Cluxton; 2 P McMahon, 3 M Fitzsimons, 4 E Lowndes; 5 D Daly, 6 J Small, 7 J McCaffrey; 8 B Fenton, 35 C Reddin; 10 N Scully (1-1), 13 C Kilkenny, 11 S Carthy (0-1); 20 C McHugh (0-1), 14 E O'Gara (0-1), 15 D Rock (0-3 frees).

Substitutes: 19 P Flynn for 11 S Carthy (42 mins), 9 MD MacAuley for 25 C Reddin (42 mins), 21 K McManamon for E O’Gara (45 mins), 18 D Byrne (0-1) for 7 J McCaffrey (57 mins), 12 J Whelan for 20 C McHugh (62 mins), 24 E O’Conghaile for 5 D Daly (70 mins).

Referee: C Branagan (Down).

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times