Two late goals from Dublin made last night’s encounter look lop-sided but Donegal can be fairly satisfied with their display; with fifteen minutes to go we were right in it.
Similar to last year’s semi final, it was the departure of one of our star performers that ultimately cost us. Then it was Karl Lacey, and to this day there remains that ‘what if’ for the Donegal faithful as to what would and could have happened had he stayed on. Another knee injury last night, this time to Michael Murphy, and when he left the field our chances of a win seemed to go with him.
Prior to that he was once again turning on a master class. Much has been made of the decision to play him in a deep role last August and on the day it didn’t really work. This time around though the country got to see Michael in one of his bravado, tour de force performances. He was catching ball at full forward, winning frees out the field, driving through the Dublin defence - by the time he departed he had notched 0-6 leading to him receiving the man of the match gong from broadcaster Setanta. Its not often that we see a player on the losing side pick up the award so it goes to show how good he was going.
He kicked two from play and his place kicking was excellent, indeed it is encouraging to see him kicking most of his frees off the ground; it’s a dying art in the game and a huge asset to any side who possess someone so proficient in the skill.
He has now racked up 2-19 in his four matches since returning from injury, although whether or not the fifth game will be against Armagh in two weeks is a serious doubt with his knee not looking in good shape when he was forced off. You could see he was revelling in being on the big stage and almost had to be dragged off the pitch by the Donegal doctor. The big players are born to play on the sacred turf in Drumcondra and with Michael in form like this it shouldn’t be too long until we’re back on Jones Road.
With Michael off the field, Paul Durcan’s attempt to mimic Stephen Cluxton’s All Ireland Final heroics didn’t quite work out and he had to endure a long trot back to his goal with the jeers of Dublin fans ringing in his ears. Between the sticks though he had a fine game, stopping three goal chances - the first effort from Eamon Fennell in the first half drew an incredible reflex stop from the big Four Masters man. Indeed he was unfdortuante to see Diarmuid Connolly's late effort squirm past him after another good stop.
While Dublin did manage to post a 2-16 score line, four or five cheap points were conceded by Donegal from turnovers around midfield. After hard work in stopping a Dublin attack or winning a dirty ball in the middle, on numerous occasions this good work was quickly undone and that was particularly frustrating.
Also a worry was our distribution. Dublin kept a sweeper back in front of the full forward line and yet time and again we kicked the ball directly to him. We’re normally more shrewd and clever when faced with this and should have been recycling the ball and probing for an opening. Our first three attacks all ended up being kicked straight to a sky blue jersey and this was quickly followed by three balls dropped short into the hands of Cluxton.
Patrick McBrearty did catch one lovely ball over his head in the second half and forced a smart stop from Cluxton; that was our second goal chance of the game. We saw last year how crucial Colm McFadden’s missed goal chance proved to be and unfortunately again we failed to take any.
Dublin looked impressive on the night, that bit sharper and more clinical as a unit than us. The movement of their forward line was especially eye catching - always available, always running onto the ball at speed and able to take on their man. While Donegal struggled to find their inside men with wayward passing, Dublin made theirs stick.
If you just saw the final score from the game you’d think we’d be on the receiving end of quite a beating but the two late goals put an unfair gloss over proceedings; we didn’t deserve to come out on the wrong side by nine points. The game plan that Jim had devised to beat Dublin last August was working in many ways last night. He has talked since about his bigger men playing around the middle and breaking forward at pace.
Michael did this and even Christy Toye appeared to be finding a bit of form using his height and strength to good effect in the second half. He wasn’t suffocated by blue jerseys as he was last time out and found a lot more time on the ball. He was about to be taken off at one point but slotted over a score, forcing Jim to quickly abandon the switch for a while.
Another good display was that of Leo McLoone. Much has been made of the man absent from the No 7 jersey but we knew all along we had a man good enough to replace him. He’s still not quite back to his best following his injury plagued year in 2011 but after a shaky opening quarter last night Leo showed signs that he’s going in the right direction. He scored a fine point in the first half as did his club mate on the other wing Anthony Thompson. That duo, along with Lacey, drove forward brilliantly and caused real problems for Pat Gilroy’s men. Full back Neil McGee even got in on the act, helping the Donegal revival early in the second period.
Jim would have felt last night that it was worth a chance having a go at Dublin, with a home match to come against Armagh on Easter Sunday, Donegal should have their destiny in their own hands - depending on results in Castlebar and Killarney today a win should hopefully be enough to keep us in Division One.
Once the Orchard meeting is out of the way its full speed ahead to Breffni in late May. The aim will be to get back to Croke Park in August and who knows, the Dubs could be waiting for us again.