Jim Gavin knows Dublin’s Super 8 road goes uphill after Donegal win

Tyrone’s scoring spree adds to sense that Omagh clash will define Group 2

Dublin’s Niall Scully scores his second goal past goalkeeper Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Super 8 game at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin’s Niall Scully scores his second goal past goalkeeper Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Super 8 game at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Dublin 2-15 Donegal 0-16

The house DJ played Bowie’s Let’s Dance when Dublin took the field just seconds before the second-half throw-in. But there are no guarantees that they have it on the playlist in Omagh, to where Jim Gavin’s thoughts had already turned.

But dance they did here. Niall Scully’s 37th-minute goal threatened to transform what had been a lightly entertaining contest into a procession of Dublin’s power game, with their hard-running, high-pressure game gradually tearing apart the fabric of the Ulster champions.

There’s no shame in a young team being beaten by Dublin in Croke Park. It has become normality. But Donegal showed a lot of stones here without ever threatening to win the game. They responded to Scully’s goal by reeling off four points on the trot. With the memory of 2014 burnt onto their retinas, Dublin didn’t allow Donegal to create what they really needed: goals.

The Dublin defenders were like glue on the Donegal runners and at one stage brought all 15 men behind the ball when they led by six points. The Ulster champions couldn’t afford to put Michael Murphy in the one place he is capable of terrorising the All-Ireland champions: full forward.

As it was, while Declan Bonner threw in a few kids who might be hard pressed to find their way to O’Connell Street, Jim Gavin was able to call upon Messrs Costello, McManamon and Flynn to keep the energy levels high. It was a controlled performance by Dublin, happy to keep their noses five and six points ahead and persisting with their fast-slow passing game.

“It was a great test,” Jim Gavin said afterwards. Certainly, it was the closest thing the Dubs have had to a competitive game in a while.

“You could see why Donegal are Ulster champions, they are a quality side. If they took a few more scoring opportunities it might have been a different game going down the stretch, but we are satisfied and happy we got two points. It gives us a foundation in the group. The performance won’t be good enough going forward no matter who we play, be it Roscommon or Tyrone, so that gives us a lot to reflect upon.”

The memory of a series of goal chances either deflected by Shaun Patton or just missed was pre-occupying Gavin. Even when Dublin are at their most regal, the manager likes to identify a worry-point or two. The conversion rate was the obvious bugbear here.

Donegal’s Michael Murphy in action against Brian Howard of Dublin during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Super 8 game at Croke Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Donegal’s Michael Murphy in action against Brian Howard of Dublin during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Super 8 game at Croke Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“That is exactly it, the chances that we had, that we didn’t convert is disappointing, particularly when we spend most of our practice sessions going after the skills of the game – shooting for points and goals.

“The next day which we have against Tyrone won’t be good enough, 7-44 they have put up in two games. We will need to be putting up scores at the other end. That gives us something to reflect upon, it won’t be good enough to reflect upon. That is, I suppose, a disappointing thing.”

The atmosphere here was strange. The heavy beating Tyrone had administered to Roscommon in the first game meant that a sleepy feel had settled in the big stadium when the All-Ireland champions appeared.

If, at times, it felt like a pleasant-evening league match, that’s because it kind of was. One of the consequences of the new order is that you lose the old season-on-the-line feel of the knock-out quarter-final era.

Both coaches made 11th hour changes here, with Gavin radically altering his full-back line while Neil McGee, Donegal’s full back warrior, made way for Stephen McMenamin.

It was as if both sides were trying to plot a way not just through the trials of this muggy Saturday evening in the city but also of the fortnight ahead. And that sense of a long road ahead carried through to the rhythm of the game, which was dead slow and languid around the middle of the field and a furious hive of activity closer into the Donegal goal mouth, where Eoghan Ban Gallagher was shadowing Ciarán Kilkenny and, later, Paul Mannion.

Those match-ups were as frantic as flyweight bouts, while further out the sharp-shooters on both sides seemed to have all the time in the world to pull the trigger. Donegal picked off a series of pretty scores and also left a good half dozen behind them in the first half while Dublin, uncharacteristically rusty in the opening 10 minutes.

They were warmed up by Dean Rock’s metronomic place-kicking and a speedster goal from Niall Scully, which was admired by nobody as much as the Donegal defenders, who allowed him waltz through before sliding his shot underneath Patton.

The Letterkenny goalkeeper had earlier made a brilliant stop of a thumping Con O’Callaghan shot during a period when Dublin sought to stamp their authority. it kept the Ulster champions in the contest. But a quick point by the hugely influential Brian Howard then gave Dublin a 1-8 to 0-7 lead after 30 minutes that flattered them on the balance of play. Against that, it is precisely the kind of score that Gavin’s Dublin specialise in, retreating at half-time with a lead despite having made enough errors to guarantee a strong telling off in the dressingroom.

Donegal made a good stab at this in the opening half. Jamie Brennan was handed the near impossible task of helping the supporters forget that Patrick McBrearty is recuperating in Kilcar. He fired two silky first-half scores but more importantly had the courage to back himself when he had a one-on-one in front of the Hill goal, where a strong city support had gathered. His shot blazed wide but the intent was everything.

Paddy McGrath managed to loop behind Dublin’s defence and had a half-shout for a penalty before half-time. Trailing 1-9 to 0-8 at the break was a mild disappointment given their efforts but left them with enough of a scent to keep on chasing. Patton pulled off a series of great saves but several of those were necessitated by increasing troubles with his own kick-out.

“It is a learning curve. It is Shaun’s first year, “ said Bonner. “He had a really good Ulster campaign and was outstanding. It was a huge factor, not just our kick-outs but Stephen Cluxton’s too. They won the kick-out battle. But we take the positives. It was always going to be difficult coming in here and our attention has to turn directly to next Saturday evening against Roscommon.”

The most pleasing thing for Bonner was that Donegal did not fold the tent after the setback of Scully’s early goal. Jim Gavin rejected the suggestion that Dublin had not been as clinical as usual in hammering home their lead.

“I think it is more that Donegal are a class team and they aren’t going to let you away. That is more a reflection on them and their determination. They will have a big say in this competition yet.”

For all that, winning this always seemed tantalisingly out of Donegal’s reach. James McCarthy and Brian Fenton slowly but surely began to run the show and Paul Flynn gave the Hill crowd that warm fuzzy feeling by kicking a 75th-minute point that promised: all of this can go on forever.

Dublin did their keep-ball schtick at the end of the game, reinforcing their sense of control but at least Donegal had the appetite to keep on hunting and trying to make something happen. A five-point defeat is not the end of the world but they have a lot of football to play if they are to meet the All-Ireland champions again this year. The Super 8s roadshow begins next week and the gathering in Omagh feels like one of the key points of the summer.

“A fantastic opportunity,” Jim Gavin enthused. “We’ve always got a really warm welcome from the people of Tyrone.”

DUBLIN: 1 S Cluxton; 2 M Fitzsimons, 7 J Cooper, 24 E Murchan; 5 B Howard (0-2), 6 J McCarthy (0-1), 26 C O’Sullivan; 8 B Fenton, 9 MD Macauley; 10 N Scully (2-0), 11 C O’Callaghan, 24 J McCaffrey; 13 P Mannion, 12 C Kilkenny (0-1), 14 D Rock (0-7, five frees, one 45).

Subs: 18 C Costello (0-2) for 9 MD Macauley (46 mins), 22 K McManamon for 13 P Mannion (48), 20 P Flynn (0-2) for 5 B Howard (54), 4 E Lowndes for 21 J McCaffrey (62), 17 C Basquel for 11 C O’Callaghan (71), 19 D Daly for 2 M Fitzsimons (76).

DONEGAL: 1 S Patton; 2 P McGrath, 17 S McMenamin, EB Gallagher; 5 F McGlynn (0-1), 6 P Brennan, 7 R McHugh (0-2); 8 H McFadden, 9 L McLoone; 13 O McNiallais, 14 M Murphy (0-5, four frees, one 45), 12 C Thompson (0-2); 26 E Doherty (0-1), 11 M Langan (0-2), 15 J Brennan (0-3).

Subs: 3 N McGee for 2 P McGrath (half-time), 20 D O’Baoill for 13 O MacNiallais (51 mins), 10 C Mulligan for 12 C Thompson (54), 18 C Ward for 26 E Doherty (57), 23 A Thompson for 6 P Brennan (62), 21 S McBrearty for 15 J Brennan (66).

Referee: C Lane (Cork).

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