A five-point defeat here may not prove to be fatal as Donegal live in hope that they could be back at Croke Park for another go before the summer’s final embers have flickered.
Dublin 2-15 Donegal 0-16
By Chris McNulty at Croke Park. Pictures by Evan Logan
Niall Scully’s two goals, one in each half, helped Dublin to a win as the Super 8s series began before a poor turnout and an even poorer atmosphere at GAA headquarters.
Picture caption: Jamie Brennan breaks for goal during Saturday’s Super 8 game in Croke Park.
It was a night when Donegal were in the tie to the end, although they never really threatened to reel in the deficit after Scully slotted in his second goal two minutes in to the second half.
Donegal got within four points, but no closer, even though Declan Bonner’s men held Dublin scoreless for 16 minutes before Paul Flynn landed the game’s final point deep into added time.
Dublin had won their three Leinster Championship games by an average of 20 points, but they were in a much tighter battle here. Donegal failed to score a goal for the first time in the 2018 Championship, as Dublin restricted their chances inside with a good defensive display.
There could be no doubt that Donegal were yearning for the presence inside of Patrick McBrearty, who watched from the Hogan Stand as he starts into the long rehabilitation road after suffering a cruciate injury in the Ulster final.
Scully’s first goal had Dublin 1-9 to 0-8 ahead at half-time and he repeated the trick with many still not back in their perch. Donegal’s rearguard parted and, via a quick transfer Scully had sliced through for his second of the night.
The Dubs, as their faithful serenaded, were ‘alive, alive oh’ when Dean Rock pout them eight in front, but Donegal responded with points from Eamonn Doherty, Ryan McHugh, Jamie Brennan and Michael Langan.
That would be as good as it got for Donegal, who were left to wonder what might have been as Scully bagged the evening’s opening goal in the 27th minute.
Croke Park gasped when Scully opened his stride. Scully left Stephen McMenamin and Hugh McFadden flailing before firing past Shaun Patton to open up a four-point lead.
The wind had been taken from the Donegal sails. Seconds earlier, in front of the baying mob on the Hill, Brennan miscued after getting on the end of a Langan knock-down.
Scully’s goal was a big swing, coming after Brian Howard and Dean Rock swung the pendulum, which had been tipped in Donegal’s favour when Michael Murphy profited from Ciarán Thompson plucking a Stephen Cluxton kick-out from the air.
Donegal survived a big scare in added time at the end of the first half when Patton’s poor kick-out was intercepted by Con O’Callaghan, but the St Eunan’s man redeemed himself, turning the Cuala man’s shot away for a ’45.
Patton had batted away an earlier O’Callaghan effort, but Dublin led by four at half-time. Rock kicked five of the champions’ scores from dead balls, but was off target with that final ’45 to spare the Donegal blushes.
In the second half, O’Callaghan got on the end of another short kick-out from the Donegal ‘keeper, who managed to stay behind his line and keep out the shot. Almost immediately, Patton denied Brian Fenton, who was powered clear by Kevin McManamon, Patton made himself big, the target small and made a fine save to thwart the advances.
Rocked by Scully’s goal, Donegal did respond before the break with Thompson hammering over from 47 metres and Murphy, somehow, found a way from the shadows of the Cusack Stand.
Dublin had won their three Leinster games by an average of 20 points, but it was clear from early on that Donegal were going to be a different puzzle entirely. In the first half, Donegal forced 11 turnovers and sewed seeds of doubt at times, but still found themselves trailing by four at the changeover.
Donegal could rightfully feel aggrieved at not being awarded a penalty in the final minute of the first verse. Paddy McGrath went down under a high challenge but, yards from the sky blue sea on the Hill, Conor Lane played on and Dublin could breathe. McGrath felt the brunt of the tackle and wouldn’t emerge for the second half, with Neil McGee into the fray.
Dublin showed four changes from the side that cruised to an eighth successive Leinster title last month.
Cluxton – described this week by former Donegal manager Jim McGuinness as the best player ever to play the position – returned in goal to take the place of Evan Comerford.
The Dubs elevated Cian O’Sullivan, Eoin Murchan and Jack McCaffrey to starting spots and, bar Cluxton’s enforced absence through a rib injury, it was the first time that Gavin altered his selection in this summer’s Championship.
Although Rock had Dublin two up by the third minute and Donegal were looking a tad jittery with Patton seeing two of his early kick-outs intercepted.
Dublin pushed way up on the Donegal kick-out and got possession from half of them in the opening 35 minutes. As a comparison, Donegal won only two of Cluxton’s first-half re-starts.
Donegal shook the sleep from their heads and kicked three-in-a-row
Brennan knocked over and Frank McGlynn levelled with a booming effort before Donegal led as McHugh – stationed in the forward unit for the most part as Donegal were forced to change tact somewhat in the absence of cruciate victim Patrick McBrearty – found the range from an acute angle. The Donegal support in the Cusack Stand roared in approval before it had even bisected the Hill 16 posts.
It was an early indicator that Donegal were, as Bonner said in the week, here to win.
They still had hope going down the home stretch as Langan – drilling over when a goal might well have presented itself as a possibility – and Murphy, twice, scored, but they just couldn’t ask the big questions.
Ultimately, Scully’s goals were the separators, but Donegal will surely take a lot from here as they head for Roscommon – who were walloped by 18 points by Tyrone – next weekend.
Dublin: Stephen Cluxton; Michael Fitzsimons, Cian O’Sullivan, Eoin Murchan; Brian Howard (0-2), James McCarthy (0-1), Jonny Cooper; Brian Fenton, Michael Darragh Macauley; Niall Scully (2-0), Con O’Callaghan, Ciarán Kilkenny (0-1); Paul Mannion, Dean Rock (0-7, 5f, 1 ’45), Jack McCaffrey. Subs: Cormac Costello (0-2) for Macauley (46), Kevin McManamon for Mannion (48), Paul Flynn (0-2) for Howard (54), Eric Lowndes for McCaffrey (62), Colm Basquel for O’Callaghan (70), Darren Daly for Fitzsimons (75).
Donegal: Shaun Patton; Eamonn Doherty (0-1), Stephen McMenamin, Eoghan Ban Gallagher; Frank McGlynn (0-1), Paul Brennan, Paddy McGrath; Hugh McFadden, Michael Murphy (0-6, 3f, 1 ’45); Leo McLoone, Ryan McHugh (0-2), Ciarán Thompson (0-1); Jamie Brennan (0-3), Michael Langan (0-2), Odhrán MacNiallais. Subs: Neil McGee for McGrath (half-time), Daire Ó Baoill for Mac Niallais (51), Cian Mulligan for Thompson (53), Caolan Ward for Doherty (57), Anthony Thompson for P.Brennan (62), Stephen McBrearty for J.Brennan (66).
Referee: Conor Lane (Cork).