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Dublin: 2 °C Friday 17 January, 2020
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Murph's sideline cut: The case for Donegal's defence

Jim McGuinness’ tactics have been the subject of much criticism after yesterday’s attritional game with Dublin. But Donegal have no questions to answer.

The Donegal panel before yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final. (Inpho/Ruan Byrne)

PAT GILROY IS going to have a brilliant plan to beat Donegal this morning – but in the meantime, his Dublin team did a pretty good job of staying the course, kicking their frees and winning yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final in what was one of the most bizarre and intriguing games of football I think I’ve ever seen.

I say Gilroy will have a plan today because I don’t think anyone could try and prepare to play Donegal if they haven’t already sampled their particular brand of football.

They knew what was coming, but the only way you could possibly try and counter it is to experience it.

And it was an experience just to be there yesterday – to see how many men they had in defensive positions, obviously, but also to see how brilliant Donegal were at one-to-one defending, at dispossessing players, at hounding players into submission.

They might not sound glamorous, but you better believe they are invaluable skills, as much instinctive as coached, and as worthy of praise as excellent forward play.

There are obviously issues with how Donegal play, but their duty to the game, as we’ve heard a few people say, is not one of them. They only have a duty to themselves to try and get reward for the effort they put in, and that reward might have been an all-Ireland final appearance if Karl Lacey hadn’t gone off injured early in the second half.

But there is obviously something wrong when I saw Michael Murphy go down with a small leg injury in the second half and I thought – ‘this could be the winning of the game for Donegal.’ I thought they might put him closer to goal if he was on one leg – which they did, but only briefly.  A half-fit Murphy against Kildare gave Donegal a pivot up front in that game that they lacked yesterday.

Bizarre as it is to ask – would Kildare have beaten Donegal if Michael Murphy was fully fit?!

Having Murphy farther out the field meant that Donegal had no interest in picking a pass to their full-forward line – they looked on the Croke Park pitch as their own stretch of no-man’s land, over which they would fight, yard by yard.  In fact the only player who tried to thread the needle (and also the man  least familiar with the system?), Christy Toye, was taken off at half-time having tried and failed to hit the killer pass once too many times.

Blue moon rising

That yard-by-yard game is unrelenting and unsparing on the body, but so too is trying to defend against it, and at half-time Dublin looked shell-shocked. No score from play, and no sign of a master-plan.

In the end, they didn’t need one, but Gilroy did pull one massive trick out of the bag – the introduction of Kevin McMenamon. I would’ve given him man-of-the-match – his hard-running style drew fouls, he kicked a point (from play!) and caused Donegal problems. Unvarnished but effective.  Credit Gilroy too for bringing on Eoghan O’Gara for James McCarthy, an extra forward for a back, even when they were down to 14 men.

Football wouldn’t have died yesterday if Donegal had won – the onus would’ve fallen on another brilliant young manager to come up with a plan to counter-act it.

That’s all. It’s what sport is all about, so let’s just remember that when we’re talking about this most committed and skilful and strange of Donegal teams.

  • This week Murph was – shocked to hear that apparently Dublin and Kerry had some sort of rivalry in the 1970s. I expect this hitherto untapped well of anecdotes and stories to be mined by some crusading journalist or another in the next 3 weeks…

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