One by one, Dublin’s players filtered hollow-eyed onto the team bus in the gangway beneath the Hogan Stand. A season that most of the country had assumed would end in late September reduced to rubble on the last Sunday in August. A few scattered kids asked for photos. Nobody said no. Nobody said smile, either.
In the circumstances, they were understandably reluctant to stand and chat but James McCarthy eventually gave us the nod. He spent most of the game in the Donegal half of the pitch, hunting for ball when they didn't have it, timing his runs when they did. Donegal swallowed him up, just like did with plenty of his team-mates. He had a go at wrapping words around it all.
“Hugely disappointing,” he said. “We expected that from them but just couldn’t match it. They came into the game with a perfect situation because we were hot favourites. We knew what to expect but, sadly, when we had them on the ropes in the first half we didn’t kill them off.
“We were totally tuned in, we knew what we had to do. But to be fair to Donegal, they deserved their win.”
Dublin’s tactic of pushing so many players forward worked in the first half when they were winning possession and kicking points from distance. But when Donegal started breaking even – and better – in the second half, it became all too apparent that Dublin were leaving bigger gaps at the back than they had the wherewithal to plug. For McCarthy, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint what made the difference.
"Goals are huge. We let three in today and you can't do that in All-Ireland semi-finals. You just can't do it. They were sloppy goals as well, preventable goals. But you live by the sword, you die by the sword. We got caught forward when we should have been back cutting out and competing for those balls. But they got the run on us."
For Jim Gavin, this was a situation he hadn't been in before as Dublin manager. Up to yesterday, his championship record had been played 10, won 10. This was his first defeat. But his first thought was for his squad.
“I’m just disappointed for the players to be honest,” he said. “I know the level of preparation they put into this game was phenomenal and I couldn’t question their determination or their commitment. The kept their resolve to the bitter end and kept going at it. But all credit to Donegal for a fantastic performance by them. They are justifiable winners.”
For so much of the opening period, it was a game that shuttled along the very track that had looked pre-ordained for it. Donegal with plenty of bodies back, Dublin trying to find a way through and succeeding more often than not. Had Diarmuid Connolly's goal chance beaten Paul Durcan in the 25th minute, the game would have taken on the hue that most Dublin games have under Gavin have.
But it wasn’t to be.
“It was a good start by us,” says Gavin. “As we always say at this level you need to take your chances but I couldn’t fault the effort of the Dublin players. We went 9-4 up and full credit to Donegal they came back. They were a point up at half-time and pushed on from there.
“They controlled the ball very well and put us under a lot of pressure. They went hard at us and they took their goal chances and that’s a credit to them and how they set themselves up. We knew going into the game both defensively and offensively it was going to be very demanding game and it turned out to be that.
“We were fully prepared and our focus was always on Donegal and not beyond it. To that end, you’d have to give great credit to the Dublin players and how they prepared. But on the day we were just beaten by a better Donegal team.”
Gavin will be back for his third year in charge in 2015 but any talk of whether players like Alan Brogan will be back got no traction.
“Not at all, no,” he said. “There is no talk of that at the moment. The guys are just very disappointed with the defeat and acknowledge that Donegal played very well. In the coming weeks, they will go back to their clubs. We will regroup and try and grow as a team and prepare ourselves for the coming season.”