The Tuesday night after Donegal scraped through the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final, Jim McGuinness crammed his players into a makeshift portable building at Donegal’s yet-to-be-built Centre of Excellence in Convoy.
“I know how to beat Dublin,” he began, speaking of their daunting semi-final against the back-to-back All-Ireland chasers.
“I’ve been tracking them. It’s all bullshit ... All this talk of them being the team nobody can beat … It’s all bullshit.”
Patrick McBrearty had just settled a nervy affair with Armagh, kicking the winner in an unconvincing 1-12 to 1-11 victory. A couple of hours later, Dublin walloped Monaghan by 2-22 to 0-11.
McGuinness skipped the post-match interviews as, with the lights out, selector Damien Diver sat in the secondary media room under the Cusack Stand in darkness — lit up only by the scattered glare of journalists’ mobile phones being used as audio recorders — having left Croke Park for the Skylon Hotel whilst Dublin were still in their groove.
Plenty thought it would soon be lights out for Donegal, too.
In a space in Convoy where a cat couldn’t be swung, McGuinness began the breakdown.
“They are going to high press,” he said of Jim Gavin’s team.
“Once we are beyond that surge, we are into open country. Other teams find themselves in that space, in the middle of Croke Park and with the noise, the pressure, they think they have to kick the ball … right down the throat of Rory O’Carroll and Johnny Cooper. They’re getting nosebleeds.”
Colm McFadden, Donegal’s corner-forward and McGuinness’s brother-in-law, recalls: “The way Jim spoke, he could always fill you with confidence. But the more and more he broke down Dublin, the more it made sense.”
Donegal worked tirelessly on a particular drill that saw a runner — say Ryan McHugh — break from midfield, with his inside options Michael Murphy and McFadden being man-marked, out in front, by one defender each.
The ‘runner’ was encouraged to keep possession unless a kick-pass was definitely on. Support runners would provide supplementary options. Safety in numbers, if you like.
The morning of the semi-final, at Johnstown House in Enfield, McGuinness flipped his chart. “Two or three goals,” and “16 or 17 points. That’s what it will take.”
When Donegal lost that 2011 All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin, by 0-8 to 0-6, McGuinness admitted the contest came too early in their existence: “Our development wasn’t far enough down the track to be able to compete at that level with Dublin then.”
Midfielder Rory Kavanagh agrees.
“In 2011, it was about keeping the numbers down,” he says. “In 2014, though, the emphasis had shifted. We weren’t being told how to stop Dublin — we would see if they could stop us.”
The plan, initially, was to stay in the game. McGuinness drew an imaginary U in front of Hill 16 and insisted Donegal defend it with their lives.
“Dublin do not score inside of this,” he stressed. “Even if they flash over a few from long range, it is not sustainable.”
Dublin did. And with Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly particularly majestic, led 0-9 to 0-4 after only 25 minutes. The signs were ominous for Donegal, although Paul Durcan saved from Connolly, keeping the sheet clean.
Christy Toye’s introduction brought Donegal a competent ball-carrier.
They were deliberate in possession and were hanging in at 0-9 to 0-7 down before the sea-change on 33 minutes.
From the shadow of the Hogan Stand, Kavanagh boomed a ball into the square towards Michael Murphy that would turn O’Carroll, and from the break McFadden fed McHugh to shoot under Stephen Cluxton.
Donegal led 1-8 to 0-10 at half time and tellingly Flynn and Connolly‘s cues were becoming less chalked. Long-rangers were now proving unsustainable.
“The big screen happened to show Jim Gavin and Declan Darcy sitting in the stand together and laughing about something. It was probably unfortunate timing, but we noticed it on the sideline,” McGuinness later wrote in Until Victory Always: A Memoir.
With a Dublin onslaught expected, Donegal’s response was to implement their choreographed strategy — Their diligent defensive priorities, coupled with breaks from all corners. Dublin couldn’t live with the numeric stream towards Hill 16. Gavin soon left his seat.
McHugh slapped home a second goal when found by Anthony Thompson after Murphy waddled O’Carroll from the square with a dummy run.
Then, a simple overhead slap from Murphy unhinged the entire Dublin defence and by the time Odhran MacNiallais had laid over to McFadden, who side-stepped Stephen Cluxton to score a third goal, Donegal had five players in the Dublin square.
It wasn’t until the 66th minute, when Connolly blazed wide by the Davin Stand, that Dublin managed to get a second-half shot off from inside of Donegal’s 20-metre line — the first being the first-half goal chance.
Donegal had melted Dublin, winning 3-14 to 0-17. The flipchart wasn’t far off.
“I believe that every game is winnable if you get everything right and you’ve got the right attitude,” McGuinness said afterwards.
Eamon McGee said it was a little like the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ when, in Kinshasa, Zaire, Muhammad Ali opted to take punches from George Foreman, as means of wearing the then world heavyweight champion out.
It was to prove McGuinness’s last win as manager. Donegal, for all their plaudits, had shown their hand and lost to Kerry in a drab game-of-stares final.
Within a fortnight, McGuinness left Glenties for Glasgow. Donegal haven’t featured in an All-Ireland semi-final since.
“In football, you have to be willing to learn from your mistakes, and Dublin certainly did,” McFadden adds. “They never were exposed like that again and they haven’t been beaten since. You have to hand it to them.”
It was to prove Gavin’s only championship defeat in seven seasons. Dublin, distilling their undoubted style with a sprinkling of more substance, would go on to win the next five All-Irelands. Neither Ali nor McGuinness fooled the world again.
“Dublin were a very good team in 2014,” Kavanagh adds.
“But that game made Jim Gavin conduct a root-and-branch analysis of what went wrong, and from then on they began to further forensically dissect their game plan. They soon became a great team.”