Dublin can shake off the rust to meet first big challenge
Champions need to step it up to erase bad memories against battle-hardened Donegal
Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan with Donegal’s Neil Gallagher during the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. The teams meet again this evening at a sold-out Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
The man with the reputation for getting up early is subject to rigorous scrutiny compared to Dublin. The champions are constantly referred to as if they have attained some higher level of football consciousness. Their supposedly comfortable domination of provincial and All-Ireland landscapes has been causing panic about the future of the game – alarm completely unaffected by the potentially serial loss of half the All-Ireland-winning defence.
Two All Stars, one of them Footballer of the Year, are already gone and even the prospect of James McCarthy – back in great form this season – missing out doesn’t appear to have shifted perceptions.
Such obliviousness to misfortune hasn’t been detected since the release of Three Wheels on My Wagon.
McCarthy was declared available by manager Jim Gavin during the week but few will take that as confirmation that he plays until 6pm this evening.
Unlike last year Dublin have been drawn in the quarter-finals with a team that has a recent and spectacular record of success against them in Croke Park. It’s hard to imagine a team as battle-hardened as Donegal have become in recent weeks, with three matches against Division One teams and another against Tyrone, who clipped them to the Ulster title in injury time.
For their part, Dublin haven’t been tested at this sort of level since last year’s All-Ireland. Even April’s league play-offs ended in 10-point defeats of Kerry, who have been working on the homework since, and Donegal, for whom you suspect it was homework. Leinster was the now-familiar litany of double-digit victories.
It’s really hard for a team to get to the pace – and intensity –of top championship matches without acclimatising. Donegal will hope to exploit that, whereas Dublin will hope to exploit them to that end.
None of this is to suggest the champions are in crisis. It’s just they can’t be sure where they are. Donegal looked a bit “access all areas” in the first half against Cork but recovered well. Maybe the lassitude could be ascribed to the hangover of losing the Ulster final.
However, even in their pomp this decade, Donegal haven’t made it past the quarter-finals in the years when they haven’t been Ulster champions. This weekend is their sixth match in eight weeks, which is a lot when facing a team with Dublin’s athleticism, pace and panel strength – especially when manager Rory Gallagher feels obliged to recycle substitutes.
Conventional wisdom says Dublin are weak under high ball in the absence of Rory O’Carroll. The Westmeath view after the Leinster final wasn’t as convinced given the sparse reward from trying to hit John Heslin, a good operator on the edge of the square.
When Donegal unlocked Dublin two years ago there were a few vital elements. Firstly the score didn’t get out of hand early on during the exhibition of long-range shooting from Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly. Secondly they struck for goals, unhinging Dublin with some early ball into Michael Murphy and/or Neil Gallagher as well as flooding through the untended acreage of Dublin’s defence.
Two years on, Gallagher isn’t currently available and Murphy looks exhausted from the effort of dividing his time between being a ball-winner in the middle as well as a target man. Another significant absentee is goalkeeper Paul Durcan, who kept a blank sheet and whose kick-outs seemed to have tracking devices.
Ryan McHugh and Patrick McBrearty have been excellent though and the latter’s shooting display against Cork was simply exhibition stuff.
That 2014 defeat also altered Jim Gavin’s world view and he set about organising a defensive structure with Cian O’Sullivan at the controls that would ensure the team never got outmanoeuvred like that again. It’s not to say they can’t be beaten but goals won’t be as easily engineered.
Outside of defence Dublin are better than then. Brian Fenton’s emergence has strengthened centrefield and the attack has seen Dean Rock improve and Paul Mannion return, adding to the options.
Gavin has also become more adroit on the line – switching two of his top forwards Ciarán Kilkenny and Connolly to wing back and centrefield respectively at halftime in the Leinster final. One caveat concerns discipline; they could be really thrown by a red or black card to an influential player. At times they have sailed close to the wind.
For Dublin coming out of Leinster, these matches are like Russian roulette after four clicks: you’d have to be nervous; otherwise you’re not paying attention. Against Donegal of all teams that won’t be a problem.