Walking up to Croke Park on Saturday evening was the first time all year there has been any real sense of anticipation for the football games we were about to see at GAA headquarters.
While we are used to the tradition of Sunday afternoon games, I’d argue Saturday evening would be the most popular time for all concerned.
I know that players are happier to have their Sunday to recover rather than trying to fit it in with work on a Monday, while many fans have the extra day to recover from their own post-match routines the previous night.
As someone in recent years who has had to put some thoughts about games down in the hour after the final whistle on a Sunday, the extra 24 hours can take the pressure off and allow some extended thinking on what had unfolded on the pitch.
Usually, I find this is a good thing but the more I thought about this game I was finding more questions than answers, particularly from a Donegal perspective. I appreciate they had only a week turnaround from their qualifier win over Cork to prepare for Dublin but much of their performance left me scratching my head.
They were the last team to beat Dublin in championship football and we have seen how Dublin learned from that defeat. So coming to Croke Park expecting the same strategy from 2014 to work again was surprising.
Dublin have proven in the last 18 months that they can now handle playing against a mass defence and a counter-attack team. They are more patient in possession, they have better spacing and movement in their forward line, and they possess the quality of players to pick off fine points from distance.
They have shown in league and championship that they are satisfied to be scoring less than might be the norm in games like this as they know they won’t leave themselves exposed at the back or be caught on the break.
Rory Gallagher commented in the build-up that it would take something different to beat this Dublin team. But where was that something different from his charges?
The talk of playing Michael Murphy in beside Paddy McBrearty and firing in high ball after high ball to test the Dublin full-back line never transpired.
There were a few attempts at the tactic but none with the quality or purpose needed to ask real questions.
Even when things were working for Donegal they didn’t stick with them.
In the 12th minute they pressed up on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-out and forced him to go long. Cluxton tried to find Brian Fenton who made a burst for some space but the kick went out over the sideline. It was a small win for Donegal but incredibly they didn’t continue with the ploy. Ten minutes later they gave Cluxton the time to find Jonny Cooper and, after a few quick passes, Kevin McManamon landed a point.
Having a constant press on kick-outs is extremely difficult — particularly given the speed at which Cluxton gets his restarts off — but as the game went on Donegal allowed the Dublin keeper to go short at will and continue to dictate the tempo.
It was 33 minutes before the Ulster side registered a score from play. The game was passing them by. But then they were given some hope. A stray Cian O’Sullivan pass allowed them to move the ball at pace at the Dublin defence, some fast hands and good movement set Ryan McHugh up to palm a well-taken team goal. When Diarmuid Connolly received his second yellow moments later it seemed as though we were set up for a grandstand finish.
There were over 20 minutes left, Dublin down a key player and only a four-point game, so surely this was the time Donegal would take control.
But the upping of the gears never came. There was no press on the Dublin kick-out, no press in the middle third where Dublin had long periods of possession, and no urgency in their running game.
Maybe they just don’t have the same energy levels to maintain their game-plan for sustained periods as in previous years.
Dublin deserve credit for how they controlled the game and were smart with ball in hand. Some scores by the likes of Connolly, McManamon, and Paddy Andrews were of the highest quality and they’ll be glad of the tougher test ahead of a semi-final with Kerry. Eamon Fitzmaurice and company will have plenty of food for thought.
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