Donegal's Caolan McGonigle collides with Dublin's Evan Comerford. Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO
Saturday Night Lights

Big night for Cluxton's understudy while forgotten man returns after 7 years in the wilderness

Evan Comerford made two important saves for Dublin as Craig Dias enjoyed his first appearance since 2013.

WITH 19 MINUTES gone last night, Donegal pulled an old move out of the playbook. 

As Shaun Patton stood over a kick-out, they filled their own half of the field with bodies.

His restart went long down the middle towards Michael Murphy, who was situated in between the attacking 65 and 45 metre lines. He climbed over John Small and flicked the ball perfectly into the path of the onrushing Ryan McHugh.

McHugh raced through on goal and played a quick one-two with Jamie Brennan that left him with just Evan Comerford to beat on the edge of the small parallelogram. 

The young Dublin goalkeeper closed off the angle on McHugh and made himself big.

Granted, McHugh’s shot was hit straight at Comerford, but credit must go to the Ballymun Kickhams man for his positioning and how quickly he advanced off his line. 

It was a brilliant Donegal move that deserved a goal, but Comerford was equal to it.

Midway through the second period, Ciaran Thompson sat in the pocket at midfield and sprayed a pass to Eoghan Ban Gallagher that split the Dublin defence wide open.

Donegal had a four on two situation and the ball eventually wound up in the hands of dangerman Paddy McBrearty about 10 metres from goal. Once again Comerford moved quickly towards the ball to narrow the space for the shooter.

He saved to his right, receiving a McBrearty rocket to the face as he dived to block the goal bound shot. Comerford received treatment for a cut to his lip but was able to resume play soon after.

On both occasions, Comerford sensed the right moment to pounce and push out on the opponent as they lined up a shot. 

With Stephen Cluxton expected to be sidelined for the entire league campaign, this spring offers Dublin a glimpse into what a post-Cluxton world would look like. On last night’s evidence, the position is in safe hands whenever the Footballer of the Year decides to step away.

Much of the focus on Cluxton’s understudy has been on his kick-outs, but Comerford’s goalkeeping instincts are sound too. He’s a tremendous shot stopper, as he displayed in denying Donegal two big goal chances. 

The nature of Dublin’s attacking philosophy means they’ll invariably give up chances at the far end. Cluxton has often come to their rescue over the years, keeping his concentration to make big saves at key stages in games.

Those two saves show that Comerford is made from similar stuff and evidently growing more comfortable in the tricky position of deputising for the greatest goalkeeper of all-time.

“We coughed up a couple of goal chances,” said Dessie Farrell. “Evan Comerford did really well at certain stages, made some big saves for us.

“He had a great game and is doing really well so we’re very happy with Evan.”

Cluxton is unlikely to feature until the summer.

“We don’t know his time frame at the minute but we’re not in any hurry to rush him back,” said Farrell of the 2019 captain.

“Players are anxious to get back themselves but the approach we’re taking is that everyone needs to be 100% so we’re not taking any chances. It’s important to give them the time and space to recover fully.”

craig-dias Kilmacud Crokes midfielder Craig Dias. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

It was a big night too for Craig Dias, the Kilmacud Crokes midfielder who hasn’t been part of the Dublin panel since he was dropped by Jim Gavin in April 2013.  

An All-Ireland winner as a non-playing sub in 2011, he made his championship debut against Louth in 2012 and scored two points. Dias showed well early in Gavin’s first league campaign seven years ago, grabbing a goal off the bench against Kerry in Killarney that February.

But he didn’t survive the pre-championship cull and never featured in the squad again under the five-in-a-row winning boss. He’s been a mainstay in the Crokes side in the intervening years and was joint-captain in 2018 when they lifted the Dublin title and reached the Leinster final.

The Dublin squad will remain open ended until the end of the league and Dias was only invited into the set-up 10 days ago.

He started as a late replacement for James McCarthy, who picked up a knock against Monaghan and wasn’t risked. 

He lined out midfield alongside Brian Fenton, spent time on the half-back line and was replaced by Cormac Costello at the interval but Dessie Farrell insisted he was happy with his display.

“It’s been a while (since he played for Dublin). He obviously was involved a number of years ago but having been involved in club football last year myself I’ve a fair handle on the talent that’s out there and I just thought it was time. 

“That’s what we’re trying to use the league for, it’s an opportunity to see some new players, blood some new players and obviously assess whether they’re up to this level and we’ll continue to use the league on that basis.”

tensions-run-high-with-players-on-both-dublin-and-donegal Tensions run high between the players in Croke Park. Tom O'Hanlon / INPHO Tom O'Hanlon / INPHO / INPHO

Of the rest, Sean Bugler (0-2) enjoyed a fine first-half before fading and Colm Basquel (0-1) looked very dangerous after his 53rd minute introduction.

On the injury front, Con O’Callaghan remains “another couple of weeks” away from a return, as are Diarmuid Connolly and Cian O’Sullivan, while Michael Darragh Macauley had a minor operation and “will be a little bit longer.”

The big news for Donegal was the return of key forward McBrearty. He kicked a point following his 52nd minute introduction and set-up a Murphy score, while also having a goal chance saved by Comerford.

The Kilcar ace spent the past couple of months in the US, reportedly to set-up a business.

“It was good to get Patrick back on the field,” said Donegal boss Declan Bonner. “That’s a big plus for us to be quite honest. He’ll only go from strength from strength now.”

His return is a welcome boost to the a Donegal attack, and timely given Jamie Brennan was forced off with an injury late on the day.

“He’s getting assessed in there, it doesn’t look good,” added Bonner. “So we’ll wait and see what’s going to happen.”

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