Two and a half years on, the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal stands as a significant crossing point. Defeat that day arguably transformed Jim Gavin's side into the resolutely disciplined and nigh unbeatable force they have become.
Victory that day marked the high-water mark for Donegal post the 2012-All-Ireland. One moment stands out from the giddy 15 minutes late in the first half when the 80,000-strong crowd sensed some mad upset was on.
Neil Gallagher had the ball and came cantering up the right wing, Hogan Stand side. In his right palm he carried the ball. With his left arm extended like a traffic cop, he held Jonny Cooper at arm's length as the Dublin defender desperately tried to get close enough to make a tackle. It was at once defiant and comical, a perfect vignette of Gallagher's physical prowess and the ornery attitude of the Ulster champions that day.
It is going to be a massive loss. He was a big-game player
Now, Gallagher has joined the illustrious cast of recent Donegal retirees. The Glenswilly man was desperate to give it another season but had to concede in his battle to rehabilitate a persistent back injury.
Rory Kavanagh, his former midfield partner, was as surprised as anyone else when Gallagher's retirement was confirmed this week. When they chatted in January, Gallagher was optimistic about his chances of breathing another Ulster championship from midfield. Gallagher's departure all but completes a thorough spring cleaning carried out by time. And Kavanagh is certain his absence will be felt.
“It is going to be a massive loss. He was a big-game player. Neil would come alive in an Ulster semi-final or final or when you were in a dogfight at Croke Park. He had that rare ability to put everyone at ease with a single catch. You know, you are playing a big game in Croke Park and you might lose two or three possessions in a row and you are under pressure. The half-backs and half-forwards start staring at the midfielders. Sort this out boys!
“I normally then had a wee look at Neil as if to say, go on big man. We need one here. And he more often than not delivered. And with that catch, everything was back to running order and the machine kept turning. And it’s the sign of a great player. It was when the chips were down you turned to him. And as well as that, he never gave the ball away.”
Overnight, it seems as if Donegal has been transformed into Michael Murphy and a bunch of kids. That perception isn’t quite true – and ignores the fact Murphy himself is only 27. Neil McGee, Karl Lacey, Paddy McGrath, Frank McGlynn and Patrick McBrearty all started the 2012 All-Ireland final.
We've made no secret: we felt our scoring return hasn't been good enough
Mark McHugh is fighting for a starting place while his younger brother Ryan has proven to be liquid gold. Martin McElhinney, recovering from injury, will deepen the midfield options.
Still, against Kerry Rory Gallagher not only named a very young first 15, he went for a straight man-to-man defensive system and put his emphasis on attack. At a press event during the week, Gallagher confirmed he feels this is the way Donegal have to go this season.
“Absolutely,” he told Charlie Collins of Donegal Sports Hub. “We’ve made no secret: we felt our scoring return hasn’t been good enough. To date we have done okay. We missed a few chances but defensively we would be disappointed with both displays. Not taking anything away from the scores that Kerry or Roscommon got but we felt we showed a lot of naivety and made a few tactical errors. Adjustments have to me made.
“We did show improvement against Roscommon in comparison to the Kerry game but ultimately if you are conceding two goals in games you aren’t going to win many of them.”
In a way, that outing against Kerry was the most radical day for Donegal football since Jim McGuinness began to put his original system in place. The risk of a heavy beating was there and for a while, late in the first half, the young Donegal players seemed to sort of wilt against a relentless Kerry attack. But they hung in and it finished 2-17 to 1-17: the highest score any Donegal team has put up against Kerry.
A week later, they secured a win against Roscommon after twice jeopardising admirable attacking play with costly defensive errors.
“Rory has said it quite often that for big games he wants to hit that 17- or 18-point target,” says Kavanagh. “And he is going with the man-to-man approach at the back and he wants to know – are you good enough to hold your man without a mass of bodies in front of you? It’s brave. I suppose it’s a total contrast to Jim’s philosophy of limiting the space and squeeze through a zone and overwhelm with second and third phase possession.
“We were almost forcing teams to run against us. So it became a game of who is going to run the ball better. And we would back ourselves in that because we had power runners like Frank McGlynn and Karl, Anthony Thompson, Ryan Bradley, Leo McLoone, myself. So it is totally different now and it will be sink or swim for a lot of those young boys. The proof will be do they believe in it?”
The early signs are encouraging. Eoin McHugh landed a memorable winning point against Roscommon while Ciarán Thompson, in particular, has caught the eye in the opening rounds. Rory Kavanagh will be watching the Dublin-Donegal game from the RTÉ studios. He reckons Rory Gallagher is absolutely right to go with the new approach, even if it takes time for the team to perfect.
We have a lot of pure footballers right now but maybe we are lacking the out-and-out dogs
“He is completely right. The brutal reality is that we can’t play that sort of game anymore. So he is trying a new way and it may mean suffering for a season or two. It is going to take time. The balance is a big one. Five or six years ago you had enough dogs in the team who just enjoyed breaking up play and getting up and down the field.
“We have a lot of pure footballers right now but maybe we are lacking the out-and-out dogs who enjoy the other side of the game-tracking and winning back the ball and just being a disruption. And that side is arguably the most important.”
Dublin beat Donegal twice last year – 1-20 to 1-13 in the league semi-final and by 1-15 to 1-10 in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. That game featured five of the subsequent retirees as well as Odhran MacNiallais and Leo McLoone, who aren’t on the panel. Conspicuous by his absence was Big Neil, who was even battling against the odds to return to fitness.
Few home supporters will land into MacCumhaill Park on Sunday expecting Donegal to halt the Dublin juggernaut: 31 games and counting, dating back to that sensational All-Ireland semi-final.
Around 13,000 supporters are expected, promising an absolute rush hour for the carvery. Donegal have not lost a game in Ballybofey since March 2015 – a fact that won’t be on lost on Dublin.
“The record is probably the only thing in our favour. The All-Ireland champions coming to town – it is a big ask,” concedes Rory Kavanagh before allowing himself a small mischievous guffaw. “But what a result it would be. That would be brilliant.”