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Dublin: 10°C Monday 19 April 2021

5 talking points after Donegal stunned the Dubs in Croke Park

Few gave Donegal a chance this afternoon – but they stunned All-Ireland champions Dublin in a remarkable Croke Park semi-final.

Ryan McHugh scores a goal Ryan McHugh scored a game-changing 2-2 as Donegal ended Dublin's reign. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

1. Jimmy’s winning tactics

The bulk of the pre-match analysis focused on the tactics Jim McGuinness would use to stop the previously unstoppable Dubs. The memory of the 2011 semi-final loomed large all week but today, McGuinness managed to marry the stubborn defence of that day with the same scintillating counter-attacks and lethal shooting that led Donegal to their All-Ireland holy grail 12 months later.

Even when Dublin were on top in the opening 20 minutes, it was only by virtue of some otherworldly long-rang points from Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly. That kind of scoring was never going to be sustainable.

Neil Gallagher spent a large chunk of the opening quarter alongside Colm McFadden in the Dublin square, dragging Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O’Sullivan out of position at different stages.

The introduction of Christy Toye on 26 minutes signalled a sea-change. He instantly made a contribution and from that point on, Donegal were much more competitive in search of possession and much more effective in their use of it.

And while it seems unfair to single out any one Donegal player for a superb team performance, the midfield duo of Neil Gallagher and Odhran MacNiallais were monstrous — not least in combining for McFadden’s goal — while goal hero Ryan McHugh was a deserving Man of the Match.

2. The moment that changed the game

For 20 minutes, Dublin were as impressive as they have been at any stage this summer. After falling behind to an early Michael Murphy free, they rattled off seven points with a single score from Karl Lacey Donegal’s only response.

Michael Fitzsimons and Jack McCaffrey with Colm McFadden Colm McFadden was a handful for the Dublin full-back line. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The Dubs led 0-8 to 0-4 when Diarmuid Connolly — who was one of their best on the day with five fine points — had a chance to strike a hammer blow. He was too casual though and his rolled shot bounced off Paul Durcan’s legs and away to safety.

From that point until the end of the first half, Donegal outscored the Dubs by 1-4 to 0-2 and the whole momentum of the game had been turned on its head. Donegal’s tails were very much up and as the sides went into the dressing rooms, Dublin had a challenge on their hands for the first time this summer.

3. Donegal’s youth come of age

Before this afternoon, Ryan McHugh had just a single Championship point to his name. Today he eviscerated the Dubs with a superb 2-2 and stepped definitively out of big brother Mark’s shadow.

Speaking afterwards, McGuinness was quick to praise his game intelligence and it’s no surprise that McHugh was in the right place at the right time for both his goals. He made clever runs all afternoon and was there to support both McFadden and Anthony Thompson at two crucial moments in the game.

With Odhran MacNiallais equally as influential in overpowering the Dublin midfield, Donegal’s new boys ensured that this side was a completely different prospect from the one which limped out meekly against Mayo when it came to the crunch last summer.

Nicky Devereux with Odhran Mac Niallais MacNiallais was a midfield monster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

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4. Composure deserts the rattled Dubs

A number of times over the past two seasons, Jim Gavin’s Dublin have found themselves on the back foot and facing questions. They trailed Meath at half-time in the 2013 Leinster final, Kerry at half-time in the 2013 All-Ireland semi, and Cork at half-time in this year’s Division 1 semi-final.

On all three occasions they responded to win emphatically and Gavin has regularly saluted his side for their patience under fire. Today, when they needed it most, their composure deserted them.

Even after McHugh’s second goal shortly after the restart, Dublin cut the margin to three points with nearly a full half-hour still to play. There was hardly reason to panic but they committed too many men too far forward too soon and were made to pay; they were completely isolated at the back as McFadden swanned through to score.

Donegal’s third induced a real panic in Dublin as well as backing up the belief which had carried the Ulster champions to that point. As the Dubs tried to chip away at the lead, their nerve deserted them — they shot 12 wides in the second half including an inexcusable spell of five in the final minutes, a sequenced punctuated by a single score from sub Paddy Andrews.

Colm McFadden celebrates scoring a goal Dublin panicked after McFadden scored Donegal's third goal. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

5. Final dream for Donegal

On 21 September, for the first time in 127 years of the All-Ireland Football Championship, Donegal will meet Kerry to decide this year’s Sam Maguire.

“We know all about Kerry and their tradition and what they’re going to bring,” McGuinness said as the reality of today’s six-point win and the upcoming challenge sunk in.

“It’s a dream final for us in many respects.”

To add even more icing to the cake, Donegal will have a shot at a senior/minor double after their youngsters edged out Dublin by a single score in a nail-biting curtain-raiser.

Jim McGuinness celebrates the final whistle with Neil McGee and Eamonn McGee McGuinness celebrates with Neil and Eamonn McGee at the final whistle. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It’s the first time that the county have ever contested a minor decider — Kerry are the opposition in that game too — and as news of their win filtered through to the senior dressing room, it gave McGuinness and his men a massive lift ahead of throw-in.

The challenge now is to keep a lid on the buzz in a football-mad county for the next three weeks.

Poll: Who is your man of the match from today’s Dublin v Donegal semi-final?

Donegal shock Dublin to set up All-Ireland final with Kerry

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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