Donegal, as Ulster and All-Ireland champions, possess what they want the most but in terms of league status they’ve fallen into the latter classification following an afternoon of thin margins yesterday.
One-point wins for Kerry and Mayo mean they keep their head above water, while Donegal were effectively relegated after Paul Mannion’s 72nd minute equalising point on a peculiar day in the North West.
Donegal were two points up as stoppage time began after a second half that hadn’t seen a single score from play. However, Jack McCaffrery’s and Mannion’s points were telling, and as much a benefit to Kerry as Dublin.
A lull fell over MacCumhaill Park as the final whistle went, with the decibel levels lifting only for the exit down the tunnel of Michael Duffy, the Sligo referee who started the match as fourth official, but finished it as the man in the middle. Pádraig Hughes had left the field on a stretcher 10 minutes into the second half after twisting a knee.
Jim McGuinness didn’t actually say it but the Donegal manager was understood to be clearly irked by a number of Duffy’s refereeing decisions, most notably the one not to award anything when Rory Kavanagh was tugged by Jason Whelan when he went in on goal with just nine minutes left and Donegal 1-8 to 0-9 ahead.
“The boys are a bit shell-shocked because they feel they did enough to win the game,” McGuinness said afterwards. “A lot of stuff went on that didn’t add up, let’s put it like that. You’ve seen the game as well as I’ve seen the game. You report on it tomorrow and I’ll read it.
“There were a lot of things going on near the end that had a major impact on the game and have relegated us as a result. I’m very proud of the players, the way they played. We did enough to win the game and we should have won the game, but we haven’t won the game.”
Moments before the incident that Duffy chose to overlook, Stephen Cluxton had saved with his feet to deny Ross Wherity his first senior Donegal goal. Dublin were far from their springtime best but were always just inside of arm’s length, capable of striking.
For long spells it looked as though Donegal would be comfortable enough. A year ago they found themselves in a similar position to keep their head bobbing above water. Trailing by three points against Armagh, a Donegal team minus the injured Michael Murphy reeled off six successive points to stay in Division 1.
However, Mannion was a constant thorn in Donegal’s side yesterday for Jim Gavin’s Dublin. The Kilmacud Crokes forward scored five pointed frees to keep the Leinster champions in touch.
The only goal of the match came after a flowing Donegal move was finished off by Colm McFadden on 10 minutes. Wherity and Patrick McBrearty were involved in the build-up that opened the Dublin defence before McFadden shot into Cluxton’s bottom corner.
McFadden had 1-2 in his pocket before he was forced to be withdrawn at half-time. The All Star forward had been suffering a slight hamstring injury all spring and picked up cramp in the first half on Donegal’s first week of “championship training”.
Donegal were five up approaching the half hour but Dublin clicked into top gear for the first time, a two-minute spell late in the first half that saw them reel off three points from play with Cian O’Sullivan and a Paddy Andrews brace getting them back into contention. Ryan Bradley’s score on the whistle meant Donegal led 1-6 to 0-6 at half-time but it was to be their last point from play.
Dublin were equally negligent from play and were reliant on Diarmuid Connolly, goalkeeper Cluxton and especially Mannion from the placed balls. Donegal had Michael Murphy and McBrearty to thank as they got 1-9 to 0-10 as the clock clicked from black to red on 70 minutes.
It looked like McGuinness’s precise calculations would be enough to see his team survive but there was a sting in the tail in the form of a Dublin side who look to have all the artillery to make a decent assault on an All-Ireland this year.
Scorers for Donegal: C McFadden 1-2, (0-2f), M Murphy and P McBrearty 0-3 (2fs) each, M McHugh, R Bradley 0-1.
Scorers for Dublin: P Mannion 0-6 (5fs), P Andrews 0-3, C O’Sullivan, J McCaffrey, D Connolly (f), S Cluxton (45) 0-1 each.
Subs for Donegal: O MacNiallais for McFadden 36, M O’Reilly for McElhinney 47, D MacLaughlin for MacNiallais 69.
Subs for Dublin: J Whelan and B Cullen for Flynn and Brady 36, D Bastick for Macauley 56, D Rock for Connolly 58, M Fitzsimons for Brennan 63.
Referees: P Hughes (Armagh) and Michael Duffy (Sligo).