Asked if a shift away from the defence first mindset of the Jim McGuinness era was likely, Lacey was pretty clear with his response, “well, it’s not going to be the same anyway”.
So subtle turns and stylish scores are going to be de rigeur under Rory Gallagher? We can generally expect more attacking, yes? “Yeah, if you want to put it like that.”
Perhaps that is still Donegal’s long-term plan but, on Saturday, with great rivals Dublin in plain sight, they reverted to plain old fashioned defending. What they did best under McGuinness.
It wasn’t quite the Alamo of 2011 but it was a strategy designed to thwart Dublin all the same. It was successful to a point though Dublin’s vital x-factor, in this case Jack McCaffrey, who hit 1-1 as a late sub, was decisive.
Pushed on what he saw from Donegal at Croke Park, Dublin manager Jim Gavin painted a picture of oil interacting with water during an at times tempestuous contest.
“When one team plays defensive football and one team plays attacking football, the two collide sometimes and that’s the fall out. We’re very happy with how our players held their discipline and I’m satisfied with how we performed. That’s the way (Donegal) play. There is no right or wrong way to play Gaelic games. They’ve been so successful with that model.
“They’re very structured in how they play their football. So there was no surprise. I saw the tape of their game against Derry and that’s how they played. I’m sure Rory tried new things there too, that’s the nature of the league. They’re a very polished side overall.”
The bigger picture for Dublin was they required the win for two reasons; firstly to bounce back from their opening day defeat in Cork and, secondly, to gain a modicum of revenge on Donegal for last August’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat. Championship scores won’t be settled in early February of course but victory must have been satisfying all the same.
It was achieved the hard way as Dublin were reduced to 14 men when Kevin McManamon saw red in the 45th minute. His second booking for a high challenge on Mark McHugh seemed harsh though Dublin didn’t pay the ultimate price.
“To win with 14 men for the last 25 minutes, there was good mental strength shown in that period to keep our shape and defensively to only concede three points in that time,” continued Gavin.
“I think offensively we also looked threatening in that period with only 14 so that was pleasing.”
Dublin’s attack was bolstered late on by the returning Bernard Brogan while Ciarán Kilkenny came on in the first-half for his first action since a cruciate knee ligament injury, scoring the game’s last point. “Ciarán had played a game for St Pat’s last week and a game with his club so he felt ready to go and the opportunity to bring him in arose, I think he did well,” said Gavin. “He’s worked really hard and his performance reflected that.”
Another big positive was John Small’s strong performance at centre-back. With Ger Brennan continually absent, it’s been a problem position and Dublin’s lack of a commanding number six was ruthlessly exposed by Donegal in last August’s Championship encounter. Former underage star Small has been an ever present at centre-back this season so Gavin clearly fancies him in the role.
“We’d know him from the U21s,” said Gavin. “He was an outstanding player at that grade and at minor and of course with Ballymun. His performance was just a reflection of how he plays for his club on a regular basis.”
The game lacked the drama of the Championship encounter and Dublin took a narrow 1-5 to 0-7 half-time lead courtesy of Cormac Costello’s early goal.
They led by two with 20 minutes to go but had gone half an hour without a score from play as the exchanges got more intense and, at times, heated. At one stage, Small was floored by a crushing Michael Murphy challenge. But he and Dublin battled on and McCaffrey’s 63rd minute solo goal was the game’s climax.
A little like his goal against Cork in the 2013 Championship, McCaffrey sped free again and couldn’t be caught, unleashing a sidewinder to the Donegal net.
Scorers for Dublin: D Rock (0-5, four frees, one 45), J McCaffrey (1-1), C Costello (1-0), E O’Gara, Davy Byrne, E O Conghaile and C Kilkenny (0-1 each).
Scorers for Donegal: M Murphy (two frees) and P McBrearty (two frees) (0-4 each), C Toye (0-2), C McFadden (0-1).
Subs for Dublin: David Byrne for Culligan (16), C Kilkenny for Brady (19), J McCaffrey for Lowndes (49), P McMahon for Cooper (60), B Brogan for Costello (64), MD Macauley for Davy Byrne (70).
Subs for Donegal: M Boyle for Durcan (6), N McGee for McGrath (19), M McElhinney for O’Reilly (47), C McFadden for H McFadden (54), D O’Connor for Doherty (64), D McLoughlin for Murphy (70, b/c).
Referee: M Deegan (Laois).
DONEGAL: P Durcan; F McGlynn, E McGee, P McGrath; K Lacey, E Doherty, M McHugh; O MacNiallais, N Gallagher; R McHugh, M O’Reilly, C Toye; P McBrearty, M Murphy, H McFadden.
DUBLIN: S Currie; E Culligan, M Fitzsimons, D Daly; J Cooper, J Small, E Lowndes; D Bastick, E O Conghaile; T Brady, D Rock, Davy Byrne; K McManamon, E O’Gara, C Costello.
Donegal’s players will contemplate the defeat to Dublin during Friday’s long haul flight to Dubai.
The majority of Rory Gallagher’s panel will jet out to the Middle East as a reward for last season’s Ulster championship success and run to the All-Ireland final.
The trip was delayed due to the post-Christmas wedding of All Star goalkeeper Paul Durcan and has been partly funded by a GAA grant with the remainder coming from the team’s holiday fund.
New manager Gallagher will remain at home with around 16 players. “The boys are heading to Dubai on Friday for five or six nights,” he said. “We’ll still step up the training, that was always the plan. I’m sure they’ll do a few sessions themselves out in Dubai.
“I think there’s 15 or 16 additions to our panel this year, so there will be boys here (at home). We’ll be training away when the boys are off.”
Gallagher said defeat to Dublin was particularly frustrating because Donegal failed to convert a number of good chances.
“That’s probably the most disappointing thing,” he said. “We pride ourselves on being fairly accurate when the opportunities arise and there were a number of what we would classify as simple opportunities around the period coming up to half-time and the start of the second-half.
“But these things happen and it’s early in the year. A number of those lads (who missed chances) haven’t a whole lot of training done but it’s something we’ll have to work on over the next number of weeks.”
Gallagher said that his squad is ahead of schedule generally after two rounds of the league. “A lot of our first team squad are probably back in action a bit quicker than we would have thought.”