BY CHRIS MCNULTY
“It’s not because the world has forgotten; it’s because this once unlikely dream has become that most extraordinary of things: It has become real,” – Barack Obama
IN the fourteenth minute of Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final between Donegal and Dublin, the Dublin based company Huggity snapped hundreds of images, taking in every corner of Croke Park.
The purpose of the exercise was to put all of the photos together to create a 360-degree picture. On Monday the ‘Huggity FanPic’ was available for fans to log in and ‘tag’ themselves.
The picture painted a somewhat sombre mood of those attired in the green and gold of Donegal. Chins rest in palms, brows are furrowed and concern is etched on every face.
At the time, with the scoreboard showing 13 minutes and 49 seconds gone, Dublin are leading by two points, 0-4 to 0-2. Karl Lacey had just tucked over Donegal’s second point of the afternoon, but Dublin’s relentlessness has been evident.
Paul Flynn’s pair of long-range bullets, aided by Bernard Brogan’s claustrophobic effort and another from beyond the ‘45 by Diarmuid Connolly have outlined the Dubs’ desire for this one.
After Lacey’s point, the next three points are all Dublin’s with the excellent Flynn, Connolly and defender Philly McMahon posting scores. By the 26th minute, another Connolly beauty has them five in front, 0-9 to 0-4.
There was no panic from Donegal, as there was from Dublin later in the day. Their composure in the face of such a stern examination was one of the highlights of the day.
Jim McGuinness took his squad away for a recent five-day training camp at Johnstown House in County Meath and the suggestion has been that Donegal had planned for every eventuality, including falling heavily behind.
“That was something that they had to think their way through,” McGuinness countered in his post-match press briefing.
“We were hoping that we were going to be a lot more compact in the early stages because the last thing you want is for Dublin to be rampaging through you and kicking long-range points. Every time they shot, it was over the bar.
“We had to try to re-evaluate what we were doing and how we were doing it and our defensive structure.”
McGuinness sent in Christy Toye as a 27th minute replacement for David Walsh. Naomh Brid man Walsh was making his first Championship start since the 2013 All-Ireland qualifier against Laois in Carrick-on-Shannon and was called ashore as McGuinness sought to utilise the power, pace and precision of Toye.
His career had seemed in jeopardy last year when he battled a neurological disease, but he has been one of Donegal’s most influential performers this summer. It was no coincidence that the tide turned on Sunday once Toye was in.
The Creeslough man has been used to near perfection this year by McGuinness – take the Armagh game, when he was said to have had a ‘quiet’ game, and Aaron Kernan’s influence only comes to the fore after Toye’s exit from the stage.
His first involvement on Sunday was to surge through Dublin’s heart to set up Ryan McHugh’s first point of the game. Four minutes later, Michael Darragh Macauley – no less a man than 2013’s Footballer of the Year – was away on a lung-burster of his own, but Toye, who’d been five yards behind the Ballyboden man not long before, was soon in to make an interception that rose the Tir Chonaill masses from their seats. Whereas Toye’s was a purposeful run made with intent, Macauley had three glances over his shoulder which ultimately slowed his gallop. The little details have always been important.
There were signs by now that Dublin were creaking.
For the kickout from which Macauley took that possession Stephen Cluxton – that picture of cool guarding the Dublin goal – was flapping his arms around in the Canal End goal. Options were scarce and, all of a sudden, Cluxton looked rattled. So, too, did Dublin.
Michael Murphy won the pre-match toss and opted to defend from Hill 16 for the first half. When Donegal broke from the parade they lined up for Amhrán na bhFiann in front of the Hill. The Dubs weren’t amused. There was something noteworthy even about the body language of the teams as they stood to attention for the singing of the anthem by Darragh McGann. While Donegal’s players stood, arms linked, Eoghan O’Gara was down tying his shoe lace, others were either admiring the scenery or drinking from a water bottle.
Donegal’s focus, even then, was clear. Those little details again.
Last Tuesday I attended the wake of Biddy McGee, the grandmother of Eamon and Neil, in Dore and bumped into someone with close ties to the Donegal backroom team. The words spoken struck a cord: “This team has never been as ready for a game.”
Much had been made about the positioning of Murphy, but the Glenswilly man has played the real captain’s role.
Two minutes before half-time, he made the opening goal for McHugh. Rory Kavanagh dropped an inviting ball on top of Cluxton. Mick Fitzsimons looked to have had possession, but the ball was flicked from his clutch by Murphy. Colm McFadden off-loaded and McHugh found the net. By half-time, Donegal were at the controls, leading by a point.
Donegal’s in-game intelligence was there for all to see in the second half. The game was won in roughly the ten minutes before and after half-time when Donegal scored 3-6. The goals told us much about Donegal’s new-found verve.
For McHugh’s second, it wasn’t all about the sheer persistance of Anthony Thompson, but the first-time finish by McHugh when others might’ve been inclined to catch first then think. McHugh did it all in the one move, sweeping delightfully past Cluxton.
McGuinness has always talked about his love of the players making their own minds up in these situations.
What of McFadden’s goal – the icing on the cake. Paul Durcan’s long kick out was powerfully batted on by Murphy. Odhrán MacNiallais made the final pass to McFadden and he skillfully rounded Cluxton before applying the finish. His smile in front of a stunned Hill 16 said it all. Colm Anthony was back.
McGuinness said afterwards: “The reality is Colm is a top-quality player and when you give those players a bit of room and a decent supply they normally deliver for you and that is the fact of the matter. We played four Ulster teams up to today so, for me, it was a lot of huffing and puffing about nothing.”
Durcan had made a strong save to deny Connolly in the first half and Neil McGee’s timely intervention put Brogan off his thinking when he would have had only Durcan to beat from close range.
Donegal defending magnificently, fouling Dublin players just four times inside their own ‘45 over the 70 minutes in a remarkably disciplined performance.
Paddy McGrath had his best game in a Donegal shirt and it is now striking how comfortable the Ardara man is in possession. Rewind back to when McGrath’s inter-county career was in his infancy and the tenacious corner-back would have had a nosebleed going upfield. McGrath has worked tirelessly and the fruits of his labour shone against the Dubs.
Patrick McBrearty again reminded us of the precocious talents within that left boot with two fine second-half points and the fact that Martin McElhinney didn’t appear until the last ten minutes was another pointer to the strength of Donegal’s cache.
Then there was Neil Gallagher.
The big man was outstanding. The gentle giant is having his best ever period in the Donegal jersey. Not that you’ll hear him boast.
Gallagher was involved in 2-5 of Donegal’s total on Sunday, operating at times alongside McFadden in the attack and withdrawing at others around his natural habitat. Gallagher is a 25/1 shot for the Footballer of the Year award – a far cry from the evidence that he has been one of Donegal’s main men across the Championship. Gallagher’s use of the ball again was to perfection.
Again it was the intelligence of it all that caught the eye. Donegal just knew what to do and how to do it.
McGuinness said: “The boys are able to take information and use it. And then on top of that make really good decisions. Colm’s ability to lose two markers and put it in the back of the net, that’s nothing to do with coaching or anything else. That’s his own game intelligence. Ryan McHugh, the way he ran, the way he made those decisions, that’s the players game intelligence.”
The belief helped too.
Donegal, even at their 7/1 odds, always believed they could win on Sunday.
“Every single county in Ireland has 15 good footballers and if they’re all fully, fully focused and they’ve got the heart and determination to play for their county and there’s a good gameplan there, you’re not going to be far away,” was one of the more memorable lines from McGuinness on Sunday.
If Huggity had revisited things by the conclusion, their lenses would have shown a much different picture. Dublin’s meltdown was in full flow. The manner of the win – keeping a clean sheet and hammering 3-14 past Dublin in the process – was sweet for Donegal people.
It has been billed even by some of Donegal’s longest-serving supporters as ‘the best ever’, including the 1992 and 2012 All-Ireland finals. Even in the press box, where neutrality is generally a condition of entry, those of a Donegal persuasion found themselves on their feet saluting a famous win.
And yet there was a note of caution from the manager in the press room.
He said: “It rates absolutely nowhere because we have got three weeks to prepare for the All-Ireland final and if we get beat in that it will be crushing. I know that Kerry are thinking the same.”
Kerry in the All-Ireland final, McGuinness said, was a ‘dream final’ for Donegal.
Sam Maguire is up for grabs again.
“In dreams begin responsibility,” Obama said on his 2011 visit to Ireland. “And embracing that responsibility working towards it, overcoming the cynics and the naysayers and those who say you can’t, that’s what makes dreams real.”