All over for another year then and in truth yesterday’s game played out as expected. Dublin were good without being great; Donegal were competitive without ever threatening to hit top gear.
The reservations and doubts that have been simmering on the surface right throughout the year were still evident against The Dubs – slow kick outs, a reluctance or inability to shoot from distance and a more-porous-than-usual defence were factors in both Championship defeats suffered this Summer.
Add in vastly reduced energy levels following a typically bruising Ulster campaign and Donegal were facing an uphill battle once the ball was thrown in.
Dublin threatened to run riot early on. Diarmuid Connolly had two glorious goal chances but took neither. The first was brilliantly saved by Mark Anthony McGinley in a moment reminiscent of his predecessor’s stop against the same player two years ago.
The Dubs’ long range efforts were fantastic with Connolly, Philly McMahon and Dean Rock all splitting the posts in front of The Hill in the first half.
Most of the Dublin forwards were winning their individual battles although Neil McGee was outstanding from start to finish, not giving Bernard Brogan so much as a shot at the posts.
Donegal were living off scraps. Frees from Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty just about kept them in the contest.
Much was made of the perceived vulnerability of Dublin’s full back line in the lead in to the game and sure enough Murphy spent much of the first half alongside McBrearty in the full forward line, hoping to exploit it.
Its one thing however having a plan to hit Michael with long ball, another executing that plan correctly. Time and again the delivery into the big man was atrocious. Most of it was over-hit, some was too close to the two men marking him.
If a forward is out in front of his marker then he wants a ball played a few yards ahead of him so that he can attack it. No defender is going to beat a man of Murphy’s size coming from behind.
The most iconic pass in Donegal GAA history is Karl Lacey's ball into Michael at the start of the 2012 All-Ireland Final. Yesterday’s passes were anything but iconic.
Meanwhile, Paddy couldn’t repeat his heroics from last week. He was well marshalled throughout and whenever he did get possession he was pushed wide and forced to shoot from ever narrowing angles.
The five point half time margin became seven early in the second half but Ryan McHugh’s goal provided a glimmer of hope and the score was a reminder of what this team is capable of. Eoin McHugh pounced on a loose pass and after a beautiful sequence of intricate hand passes, including a sensational scooped pass from Leo McLoone, the move ended up with Ryan palming the ball into an empty net.
The team sensed the chance was there for them but the fizz wasn’t. There was no kick in the legs. Even with an extra man for half an hour, the requisite vigour could not be summoned. To a man they all battled but despite a proud effort, there would be no famous comeback.
One prominant feature of both games at Croke Park was the targeting of key players. There are many ills in the modern game at present but this is one of the most worrying. It happens now in every big game and every team is guilty. The main opposition player (or players) are selected in the lead up to the game and is then targeted during the match – they’re pushed, shoved, wrestled, pulled, hassled, harried, sledged, abused. All of this takes place off the ball, out of sight of the referee and with little help coming from the rest of his officials it carries on.
Yesterday it was Lee Keegan on Sean Cavanagh, McMahon on Murphy. Previously we’ve seen Aidan O'Mahony and Justin McMahon on Murphy; Eamonn McGee on Cavanagh; Neil on Conor McManus. There are plenty other examples. Is it right that big players can have their influence reduced simply by a nasty opponent bullying them? It's becoming too easy, a team decides 'we need to take him out of the game' and it's done.
As for things closer to home, what now for Donegal? Questions will surround the futures of players and management, as always happens with every county after Croke Park losses.
One thing that is certain is that the blooding of youngsters needs to carry on. The natural evolution of the team will continue as many of our All-Ireland heroes move on and the talent from recent successful minor and U21 teams take their place.
The hardest thing for a successful team to do is to move on those lads that made you successful. Its illogical in a sense but it's necessary.
Those who step aside will of course make that job easier for management and the most recent retiree was Colm McFadden, who broke the news in Croke Park last night. A classy, elegant forward who soldiered for the cause for fourteen years, Colm got the rewards his talent warranted in 2012 with a precious Celtic Cross, an All Star and he also finished that season on top of the scoring charts.
Colm will now join the rest of us in the stands at MacCumhaill Park, Clones and Croke Park and while there is acute disappoint today after exiting the Championship, it wont be long until it all starts again.
In the meantime we have a minor All-Ireland Semi-Final to look forward to – we might get to see a Donegal team at Headquarters on the third Sunday in September yet.