One should be forgiven for presuming the natural place to direct a conversation with Jim Gavin about Donegal would be 2014. That seismic All-Ireland semi-final defeat being the solitary black mark on an otherwise spotless bainisteoir bib.
“We have never anchored ourselves to the past,” Gavin responded in wise predatorial fashion, smelling the bait before swimming under the boat. “That’s including games we have won. We have never looked back.
“We have learned our lessons, boxed them away, try to put them into practice and move on to the next game.”
He bangs this mantra like a drum: “Learn lessons, box them away, move on to the next game. That’s the process we have always gone through. Never look back.”
Suggesting revenge is a Dublin motivation come Saturday evening in Croke Park meets a similar demise. "It wouldn't be the culture, that negative energy, we would be espousing the positives."
But that day can never be erased from the minds of Dublin footballers. Jim McGuinness conjured up masterful tactics to lay waste to the theory that Gavin's footballers were on an unstoppable march to retaining Sam Maguire.
There are many reasons to keep Donegal's great victory on a pedestal. It is Dublin's last defeat in championship. Another is to remember every Dublin forward showed up in the first half as a 0-9 to 0-4 lead was constructed. It would have been 2-9 to 0-3 had Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly not spurned clear goal chances.
Suddenly Donegal pushed up in numbers, flicking over three points without fuss, before ripping Dublin’s invincibility cloak clean off.
Rory Kavanagh launched a sky-scraper onto square's edge, where Michael Murphy soared over Stephen Cluxton, then muscled the breaking ball away from Mick Fitzsimons. Colm McFadden gathered and fed Ryan McHugh, who slid a gentle shot under three despairing bodies. Dublin were drowned in the third quarter's yellow flood with McHugh and McFadden both surfing goals.
Lessons learned, boxed away. Dublin significantly altered their defensive alignment as Gavin guided them slightly away from the attacking purism. “We know if we remain static, the gameplan that we used in 2013, 2014 and what we used last year isn’t good enough because players from opposition teams will see that. All of our games are on TV so teams are constantly looking at us.
“So we have to have tweaks in that gameplan on a consistent basis. Because if you don’t, teams will simply evolve beyond us and we will decline. We have to keep growing.”
But look back they must. Simply because Donegal come at them again.
Even if Donegal, like Dublin, are different. Neil Gallagher is injured and McFadden past his prime, Rory O'Carroll is in Chicago and Jack McCaffrey knee deep in a Kenyan hospital. Alan Brogan retired, while employment took Paul Durcan to Dubai. Loss on both sides.
“Rory [Gallagher] has done a good job bringing in young players. Ryan [McHugh] is playing exceptional football now. He is in All Star form, as is Paddy McBrearty,” said Gavin.
James McCarthy is fit as a fiddle with tightened strings. Honestly, Gavin assured us, despite a quad and knee injury denying this highly influential wing back a run in the Leinster final on July 21st. "More quad than knee."
McCarthy’s presence, or absence as the case may prove considering no Dublin side named on a championship Friday has taken the field come throw-in, will have a serious bearing on the influence of Murphy.
More often than not during the two league clashes, which Dublin won by an aggregate of 16 points, McCarthy shadowed Murphy and the Donegal captain landed just the one score from play. Both men were sent off in the 51st minute of the regular season duel last March.
“No, I wouldn’t say it was a pretty game to watch at all,” said Gavin on that dreary night. “It’s not the way we play the game, not by choice.”
So while dragging Dublin into the mire can unsettle them, only goals will beat them.
“I’m sure Donegal will bring something to the table that we haven’t seen before. We are just trying to get our gameplan right. If we can execute it right, hopefully we will get the right result.”
Could that something be the sight of Murphy staying at full forward, where he did so much damage two years ago and to Mayo in the 2012 All-Ireland final? "He is very effective in there going back to the 2010 under-21 final [when Rory O'Carroll marked him]. He is an outstanding full forward but I can understand why teams might use him in midfield. He has a high level of game intelligence, he's technically an excellent player, very physical, great ball winner, great leader."
Really, Gavin admitted, it is hard to know which way Gallagher's Donegal will blow. "We saw them going very defensive against Tyrone in the Ulster final. They lost the game but that was due to exceptional play by Seán Cavanagh and Peter Harte, really magic moments. We saw two different styles against Monaghan, pushing up and going man-on-man in the replay.
“We know Rory very well from his time in Dublin, we have great respect for him here, both as a footballer and also he was a thinking man when he was with St Brigid’s.”
During a nomadic playing career that included free-scoring stints with Fermanagh, Cavan and St Gall’s, Kavanagh was a key figure as Brigid’s captured both Dublin and Leinster club titles in 2003. “I think he has been a big contributing factor to why they have reached six Ulster finals on the spin,” added Gavin. “I know he wasn’t there for one or two years, but that’s an incredible achievement in itself, as is reaching six All-Ireland quarter-finals, which is testament to this group’s place in football.”
Another incredible achievement on Saturday evening and Donegal’s place in football gets a permanent promotion.