Dublin looking even better than last year
Jim McGuinness’s Donegal will fear nothing after recapturing Ulster title
Dublin’s Kevin McManamon: an example of how good Dublin are at winning primary possession. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Wow. It’s not easy to find words that best describe Dublin’s victory in Croke Park, because I haven’t seen a Leinster final of such sustained pace and relentlessly attacking football in a long time.
To me Dublin already looked to be an improving team on last year, and they certainly stepped it up again here against their old rivals Meath. It was a humid, muggy day in Croke Park, and yet they still delivered the near total performance, even if the game went a little ragged at the end. That normally happens anyway when one team is so far ahead of the other, and both teams start using up all their substitutions.
There was that later allegation of a biting incident on one of the Meath players, and it remains to be seen what exactly comes of it: it would be out of character because I feel Dublin’s discipline has improved so much under Jim Gavin. But obviously any incident like that has no place in the game.
What also improved here more than their other two games this summer was their skill level, starting with their full-back line, where you had players like Rory O’Carroll and Philly McMahon kick-passing and fist-passing with great accuracy, out of defence. That in turn meant they had even more attacking options out the field, with the constant running of receivers, who at the same time still have this willingness to defend.
By winning so much possession Dublin are able to create a great range of options for their ball carriers. There are all so selfless, too. Players like Cormac Costello, when he came on, exemplifies that attitude, and is just as willing to work back in defence as he is in supporting the attack.
All of this slick Dublin performance was in stark contrast to Meath. I would question their tactic of trying to play Dublin man-on-man. It’s all very well defending manfully, but too often Dublin were able to unload to a player coming off the ball, such as Michael Darragh Macauley, or Jack McCaffrey. Instead, Meath needed to get men back in numbers, including their midfielders, and two wing forwards, but this didn’t happen. It made them look a little naive as Dublin continued to rattle off scores with ease.
Dublin are also so capable of winning primary possession that you simply cannot mark them from behind. We saw that repeatedly with players like Kevin McManamon, who can turn so brilliantly with the ball, and stick so low to the ground, that he escapes from his man easily.
In some ways it makes Dublin look predictable, because we know exactly what they’re going to do. But it’s not easy to stop that, not when so many of the Dublin team are playing so well, their confidence soaring, and they’re clearly enjoying their football too.
It’s not that Meath didn’t win any possession. Paddy O’Rourke was doing okay with his kick outs, and they were winning some good ball around midfield, but after that things broke down. There were several balls fell to Stephen Bray, or Mickey Newman, and neither man had any support player around them. Having said that Meath will be very disappointed. They are a better team than they showed here, but just weren’t allowed to make any sort of expression against Dublin.
What Meath might want to do is sit down and watch how Donegal beat Monaghan in the Ulster final, because that was a classic case of their defensive team getting on top, and ensuring they didn’t allow their opposition to score more than them. In other words they defend first, and work from there.
Also, while Dublin might be a little more attractive to watch, Donegal are no less intent on the business of winning, and I think if these two teams do meet down the line it will be a fascinating showdown. And I am quite sure Donegal will maintain this momentum for a while yet. They’re right back to where they were in 2012, and will have some of that old belief back too, and that makes them a very dangerous proposition for any team from here on.
Donegal have also added some very good players this year, especially Ryan McHugh, who ironically is playing the exact role his brother Mark did, before he dropped out of the panel. Odhrán Mac Niallais was also very impressive, as were the old heads such as Eamon and Neil McGee, Leo McLoone, and Frank McGlynn.
It would be jumping the gun a little to suggest Dublin will face Donegal in a semi-final, although that would appear to be the way things are headed. Because Donegal are back, looking as dangerous as ever, and McGuinness we all know is a very, very astute manager, and one man who would have no fear of taking on Dublin right now.