Dublin pull away for win after Donegal get too close for comfort

Jim Gavin’s side change gear late on after Donegal twice come within a point

Dublin 0-20 Donegal 0-15

Not quite the slow steamrolling over their opening two opponents, but still Dublin are simply taking care of business in their own dominating and suffocating way.

Donegal came to Croke Park desperate for their first win of the 2018 league, and equally keen. That didn’t show in the first half, and although they fought hard to try and salvage something in the second half, Dublin still made sure they went home empty-handed.

Dublin hit them with the last four points without reply, to win by five – with Paul Mannion and substitutes Eoghan O'Gara, Ciaran Reddin and Paddy Small finishing off what proved to be a pretty close deal in the end.

Down five points at the break, Donegal had closed it to the minimum on 52 minutes – Stephen McBrearty’s long-range point, followed promptly by two more from his brother Paddy, leaving it 0-14 to 0-13. And they closed it back again, as late as 62 minutes, Paddy McBrearty hitting what was his sixth of the night, three from play.

Unlike their opening wins over Kildare and Tyrone, where they slowly killed off the challenge laid out before them, Dublin briefly appeared to be in some bother. Not for long though.

They simply slipped into that higher gear for the final last eight minutes, and Donegal had no answer. Donegal, remember, being the last team to beat Dublin in the championship, in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final; Kerry the only team to beat them in league or championship since – in last year’s league final.

Still Dublin played in spurts and strictly low gears, then pressing just a little harder towards the end. Still a few more little boxes ticked for Dublin manager Jim Gavin: Brian Howard showing further flashes of his pace and acceleration, often helped by his Donegal marker letting him go. His first point in the second half was inch-perfect.

Davy Byrne certainly kept the shackles on Paddy McBrearty for the first half.Donegal's main threat so far this season kicked his first point, a free, on 35 minutes.

Colm Basquel got on barrels of ball, helping himself to 0-4, and he might well have helped himself to goal or two.

It was all played out before a headquarters crowd of 21,469 – including the curtain-raiser, where the Dublin women’s team beat Cork.

Up by six points at the break, 0-11 to 0-5, Dublin's opening spread of scorers included Niall Scully, who kicked four from play in that half.

Donegal midfielder Nathal Mullins only lasted 26 minutes, replaced by Caolan McGonigle.

Michael Murphy was a late addition to the Donegal panel, even though still coming off the rehab period from a groin injury. He came in on 56 minutes, kicked his first free wide, and kicked anther two wides before the end. That didn't do Donegal's rallying spirit much good.

One last footnote: this game moved 36-year-old Stephen Cluxton one game short of the century of football league appearances – this being number 99, starting, suitably, against Donegal in 2002, and spread now over 17 seasons.

Not a bad net-minding record either: 67 goals conceded in those games. Not forgetting his championship appearances of 91 games and counting, also the first footballer to captain four All-Ireland winning teams.

Donegal, meanwhile already with back-to-back defeats to Kerry and Galway, stay hovering over the trapdoor.

DUBLIN: S Cluxton; D Byrne, P McMahon, E Lowndes (0-1); J Cooper, J McCarthy, J Small; B Fenton (0-2), MD Macauley; B Howard (0-1), C Kilkenny (0-2), N Scully (0-4); C Basquel (0-4, one free), P Mannion (0-2, one free), P Andrews (0-1).

Subs: E O'Gara (0-1) for Andrews, C O'Sullivan for McMahon (both 46 mins), D Rock for Macauley (65 mins), C Reddin (0-1) for Scully (73 mins), P Small (0-1) for Basquel (both 73 mins)

DONEGAL: P Boyle; E Doherty, C Ward, E Ban Gallagher; R McHugh (0-2), L McCloone (0-1), T McClenaghan; N Mullins, H McFadden; M McHugh (0-1), S McBrearty (0-2), C Thompson; P McBrearty (0-7, three frees), O Mac Niallais, J Brennan (0-2).

Subs: C McGonigle for Mullins (27 mins), N O'Donnell for Thompson (43 mins), M Murphy for Mac Niallais (54 mins), C McGinley for M McHugh (66 mins, M O'Reilly for S McBrearty (69 mins), P Brennam for R McHugh (71 mins).

Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics