Sporting upsets: When Donegal sent Jim Gavin and Dublin back to the drawing board
McGuinness’s men were long shots to take down the champions in 2014 All-Ireland semis
Ryan McHugh celebrates scoring his side’s first goal in front of Donegal fans. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Irish people are a reliably sanctimonious lot when it comes to the GAA. Rarely more so, in fact. We go on as if no other sport is community-based, as if nobody else has heard of volunteerism, as if the norms and traditions of the people playing the planet’s thousand other sports are somehow less pure than ours. We take two unknown sports played on a tiny island that nobody cares about and we God them up whole stratospheres far above their station.
Thing is, sometimes you are reminded why. To be in and around the games that were played across eight days at the end of August and the beginning of September of 2014 was to bathe in miracles. Two epochal All-Ireland football semi-finals were followed by maybe the greatest All-Ireland hurling final of them all. Most matches don’t have a lifetime beyond the last brass note of the Sunday Game music. Here were three that will never die.
When you were there, it felt absolutely reasonable to plant a flag and declare that whatever was happening anywhere else in the sporting world, none of it could surpass this. By the end of Tipp v Kilkenny, we were staggering out of Croke Park drunk on life. There are good games and there are dramatic games and it’s often all too easy to confuse the latter for the former. That wasn’t a problem here.
There has never been a Gaelic football weekend to match those two semi-finals. It’s hard to see the future finding room for an equivalent either. On the Saturday night, Kerry and Mayo played out a Godzilla v Kong replay in Limerick that everyone presumed would stand as the game of the year, maybe even of the decade. Its pre-eminence in that regard lasted all of 20 hours.
At this remove, it’s maybe a little hard to fathom why Donegal beating Dublin that Sunday afternoon ranks as such an earth-trembler. This was no giant killing at first glance, not in the conventional sense anyway. Donegal were only two years removed from being All-Ireland champions. They had retained most of the armoury with which they’d stormed the championship in 2012 and if a few of them were certainly coming towards the end, they had nonetheless picked up a third Ulster title in four years. Out of context, you might look at the result now and shrug.
Nobody shrugged on the day. Bookmaker odds are a dubious tool for proving very much of anything but on this occasion, we can use them to make one specific point. Donegal went into the game as the least fancied team in an All-Ireland semi-final for 20 years. They were available to be backed at anything between 7-1 to 10-1 – and if Jim McGuinness’s book is to be taken at face value, the Donegal team itself was among those who feasted on the biggest price. Not since Leitrim made the 1994 semis had the year’s penultimate game been presumed as such a mismatch.
For an idea of why this should be, you have to go back over the previous 18 months for both sides. Donegal had endured a fairly torrid aftermath to bringing Sam back to the hills for the second time. Their All-Ireland defence had ended in a 16-point hiding from Mayo in the 2013 quarter-final, after which McGuinness had jettisoned Rory Gallagher and the rest of his backroom team to no small amount of rancour.
There had been constant push-and-pull between McGuinness and the county board over club fixtures, as well as the odd player walk-out here and then. They had been relegated from Division 1 in 2013 and even their promotion back to the top flight in 2014 came with the slightly bitter pill of losing to Monaghan in the Division 2 final. Though they soaked up their annoyance from that result to turn the tables in the Ulster final a few months later, nobody was quite sure what an Ulster title meant any more.
Ulster football had gone way down the rabbit hole in the wake of that 2012 All-Ireland and its relevance to August and September football was starting to look increasingly slight. Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan were all capable of ding-donging away at each other but it was all based on 13 men behind the ball and patient build-ups and, every once in a while, trying to wheedle out a counterattack.
All of which was fine and dandy when you were playing in the Ulster championship. But when face to face with serious opposition from outside the province, it looked like analogue football in a digital world. A few weeks after Donegal’s tanking by Mayo in 2013, James Horan’s side had beaten Tyrone by six in the semi-final. In the 2014 quarter-final, Monaghan had taken a ferocious thumping from Dublin after some early resistance.
It felt like everything that had been new and unplayable and thrilling about the way Donegal had won the 2012 All-Ireland was already obsolete. Yes, you could pack your defence and be hard to score against and ensure that you were always in with a puncher’s chance. But so what? Everybody had seen that already. Nobody was prepared for it in 2012 but by 2014, the real contenders – Mayo, Kerry, Dublin – had two years of homework done. That kind of football had a limited future, surely.
Especially as it was about to come face-to-face with the defending All-Ireland champions. Dublin had played 10 championship games under Jim Gavin and won all 10. Their average winning margin was 11 points. They were back-to-back league champions. They were eating teams without salt, washing them down the digestive tract in a deluge of goals and points.
From day one, Gavin had decreed that his team would be playing on the front foot. He would wax lyrical about staying true to the attacking values of Dublin football and though he could sometimes sound like he was laying it all on a bit thick, it was obvious that he had given it hours of thought.
The greatest trick Jim Gavin ever pulled was to convince the outside world that he was boring. It took supreme effort and discipline to project himself as such, not that he was short on either. But on occasion, he would let the seal open and a little of his true self seeped out.
There was a press conference once where he had been restating for the 2,364th time that while there was no right or wrong way to play the game, Dublin were committed to the attacking game of Kevin Heffernan and Dr Pat O’Neill and so on. I asked him what about the old saw that said defences win championships and he dead-batted with some perfectly uninteresting quote about how much faith he had in his defenders and how defending was an art in itself and yadda, yadda.
I didn’t give it another thought until afterwards when I was walking down the stairs in Parnell Park and he called down after me.
“It’s not true, you know,” he said.
“What isn’t?” I said.
“That defences win championships. It was debunked in a book that came out last year. It was called Scorecasting. Worth checking out.”
And it was. Co-authored by an economics professor and a Sports Illustrated senior writer, Scorecasting put the lie to the idea that the team with the best defence was the one to back, specifically in the NFL playoffs. They analysed almost 10,000 NFL games and found that the team with the better defensive record going in won 66.5 per cent of the time, whereas the team with the better offensive record prevailed 67.4 per cent of the time.
There was more to it than that but the net thrust of it all is that defence is important but no more important than attack and probably even a little less so. Now, whether you find this interesting or not, the fact that Jim Gavin made a point of bringing it up long after his press duties had finished for the day tells you something about how deeply he believed in it at the time.
Dublin’s 2014 campaign was that philosophy in full cry. When they minced Monaghan in the quarter-final, it looked as though they had cracked this whole massed defence thing and shows up its limitations for all to see. The 2-22 to 0-11 scoreline had its roots in an apparently simple philosophy – we will meet your massed defence with a massed attack. See how you like it.
They pulverised the Monaghan kick-out that day, pressing murderously high every time Rory Beggan put the ball on the tee and scoring an incredible 2-8 from that one simple tactic. They frequently had everyone except Stephen Cluxton and Mick Fitzsimons in the Monaghan half, matching up man for man, turning the ball over and not letting them see daylight. Donegal were better than Monaghan but we presumed more of the same would eventually mean more of the same.
And it did, initially. It has often been said in the aftermath that if only Dublin took their goal chances, the game would have been out of sight for Donegal and McGuinness’s famed gameplan wouldn’t have look so smart. Though that is true – Dublin went 0-9 to 0-4 up and Paul Durcan saved point-blank from Diarmuid Connolly when the killshot looked inevitable – it’s entirely the wrong way to look at it.
No, the reason this game has such a long comet’s tail is that Dublin turned up and were magnificent. For those opening 25 minutes, they were the epitome of Gavin’s first true vision of what they should be. They scored 10 points in that first half, all of them from play. Paul Flynn had boomed four of them from all distances, Connolly was unplayable, Philly McMahon got up for his usual point. If it had been the case that they had a bad day at the office and got caught, the fall-out wouldn’t have been so severe.
But it is precisely because they were so in their pomp when Donegal turned the tables on them that Gavin was forced over the winter that followed to go away and rethink what he was doing with his Dublin team. Donegal turned their bloodlust against them – they sucked them high up the pitch and filled their boots on the counter. Ryan McHugh ran in two goals, Colm McFadden another. Durcan’s kick-outs were art, Michael Murphy was Michael Murphy.
It was six years ago yesterday. Dublin haven’t lost a championship game since, Donegal haven’t been back in another semi-final. Gavin went away and made two immediate changes – he found a fully-formed Brian Fenton over the winter and used him to release Cian O’Sullivan to be their sweeper. Their 2015 All-Ireland was by a distance the lowest-scoring of the six they won on Gavin’s watch. For a match that didn’t form part of the five-in-a-row, no game was more important in the making of it.
In the stadium on the day, it was eye-popping to behold. It was like the last five minutes of The Usual Suspects played over and over again, the voices dubbed with rally-driver accents. We did not know what we thought we knew. The gruel of being wrong had never felt as nourishing.