Ultimately, only one statistic counts: Donegal 3-14 Dublin 0-17.
But it didn’t happen by chance. Donegal sometimes play with the franticness of an ice-hockey team but they possess the deliberateness of a chess player. It’s a trait that has come with experience and belief in their manager’s procurements.
When Jim McGuinness’s side lost the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin, 0-8 to 0-6, the Donegal manager admitted the contest came too early into their existence.
“Our development wasn’t far enough down the track to be able to compete at that level with Dublin,” he said on Sunday. “But the lesson was we only kicked six points and what we aimed to do today was to marry a very good defensive structure with a very good attacking one and for me that’s what sport is all about.
“It’s not about all-out attack or all-out defence, it’s about both and today we got both of them right.”
Dublin ran up an average 28.75 points per match in their lead-up to Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final. They overcome Laois 2-21 to 0-16 in their Leinster quarter-final before posting a 2-25 to 1-12 victory over Wexford.
A 52nd provincial title was clinched following a 3-20 to 1-10 defeat of Meath and Monaghan, beaten Ulster finalists, were their All-Ireland quarter-final victims, 2-22 to 0-11.
Therefore, Dublin’s winning margins were 11 points, 15, 16 and 17. Their highest concession in a single gameunder Jim Gavin was 18 points, the 2-12 Mayo scored in last year’s All-Ireland final.
McGuinness is a horses for courses type of manager. Throughout this year’s championship he has proven the need to adapt, whilst his team still possess the basic core values that have become increasingly embedded over the last four years.
Composure is the key differential since 2011.
Comparing Donegal’s 0-15 to 1-9 Ulster final win over Monaghan to Dublin’s 17-point victory over the same team was never a useful tool.
Malachy O’Rourke’s side were on a downward spiral having failed to retain their provincial title and had scraped past Kildare 2-16 to 2-14 in a fourth round qualifier after extra-time in miserable conditions. It was their first championship win at Croke Park since 1930.
Monaghan competed manfully until the 25th minute when Dublin made use of a channel of opportunity after Colin Walshe tried to run off what proved to be a cruciate injury. Diarmuid Connolly goaled, as Bernard Brogan did three minutes later.
The goals, considered Dublin’s forte, lifted Croke Park’s decibel level and Monaghan’s heads dropped as their deficit rose.
Denying these concessions, from a Donegal perspective, was imperative.
What was apparent was Dublin’s ferociousness in pushing up and harassing defenders as Monaghan sought to come from deep.
All too often Monaghan were turned over in dangerous positions, although on the occasional time they did break through the first wave of challenges, there was a chance to run into open spaces.
However, Monaghan opted to use this space to kick into a suffocated Conor McManus, while as McGuinness watched on he would’ve noted Donegal’s natural breaking game, running with ball in hand, would provide a possible anecdote if executed well enough.
Dublin, despite being defensively content to swarm up top, were man-for-man at the back.
The decision of Monaghan not to contest Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs also gave Dublin a chance to get into the running game and build a head of steam.
Donegal won only three of Cluxon’s kick-outs but the possession Dublin won was hard-fought.
On Sunday, Donegal possessed a similar defensive shape as they had done in 2011.
One difference was Neil Gallagher, initially, was Colm McFadden’s partner up front. Michael Murphy started deep, but as expected was given license to roam as he saw fit.
It was apparent from early on that Donegal were content to let Dublin shoot from distance, not allowing themselves to be drawn out and leave spaces in behind.
One thing that stands out from the first half in particular from the 2011 semi-final was the sloppiness of Donegal’s breaks, with a litany of unforced errors compared with the contemporaries, who are much more patient and controlled in possession; able to work it slowly or at speed when the necessity arises.
Even when Paul Flynn and Connolly in particular boomed over a series of eye-catching points, McGuinness, although not overly content, was aware that it was a method that wouldn’t be sustainable.
Dublin had won six – two clean and four secondary – of Donegal’s first seven kick-outs but would only win five more from 15 all game.
Paul Durcan’s save from Connolly on 24 minutes was vital, as it prevented Dublin from moving seven ahead, 1-8 to 0-4, and preserved the aim of keeping the sheet clean behind the blanket.
Therefore, McGuinness’s policies drilled in at the five-day training camp at Johnstown House were still alive, as was the players’ confidence in the plan.
Even by the time Donegal found themselves 0-9 to 0-4 down, there were inklings of their intentions from an offensive perspective.
Christy Toye’s introduction brought a competent ball-carrier and within seconds the St Michael’s player had gone on a lung-busting run to set up Ryan McHugh to point.
That score and Durcan’s save was, when assessing retrospectively, the period of the match when Donegal came to life.
Connolly kicked a wide with the outside of his right foot and Flynn, soon afterwards, ballooned an effort short into the Durcan’s hands.
There was the sea-change moment at centre-field, where Donegal would go onto win 14 contested aerial balls cleanly to Dublin’s nine.
Odhrán MacNiallais and Murphy’s points, both eye-catching in their own right, meant Donegal had three in succession.
Toye’s turnover of Michael Dara Macauley on the half-hour was Donegal’s 10th of the half and greeted as vociferously as a score.
McHugh’s goal, after his unadulterated run from midfield on 33 minutes, meant Donegal led 1-7 to 0-9.
With Murphy lurking in the square, Rory Kavanagh’s ball in caused consternation in the Dublin defence and the Donegal skipper disposed Michael Fitzsimons, with Colm McFadden winning the break before setting up McHugh to shoot past Cluxton.
Both teams traded scores as the half ended Donegal 1-8 to Dublin’s 0-10.
Dublin, who had only scored two points from play three years beforehand, had 10 first half scores from play on Sunday, with Flynn firing over four and Connolly three.
Gavin’s team had thrown all they had at Donegal but a bit like Cork in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, still found themselves a point down at the break.
“The one thing we asked for before the game was honesty and the one thing we asked for at half-time was honesty and we got that,” McGuinness said.
“When you’ve got that, that gives you a platform to try to deliver your performance and that’s what happened.”
With a Dublin onslaught expected, Donegal’s response was to cement their existing strategy.
Their diligent defensive priorities coupled with breaks in numbers. Dublin couldn’t live with the stream coming towards Hill 16.
McHugh slapped home a second goal when found by Anthony Thompson after Murphy dragged Rory O’Carroll from the square.
If there was one moment that silver-lined Donegal’s approach it was McFadden’s goal on 46 minutes.
A simple overhead slap from Murphy unhinged the entire Dublin defence and by the time MacNiallais had laid over to McFadden, who side-stepped Cluxton to score, Donegal had five players in the Dublin square.
McHugh, untracked, was denied a hat-trick by an excellent Cluxton save at the expense of a point after McFadden and Frank McGlynn had both made their minds up to go for points when goal was an option.
It wasn’t until the 66th minute, when Connolly blazed wide in front of the Davin Stand that Dublin managed to get a second half shot off from inside of Donegal’s 20-metre line.
Dublin scored 17 times from 35 shots for a conversion rate of 48 per cent.
Donegal’s 17 scores, including 3-10 from play, came from 25 efforts.
Their 68 per cent success rate is the highest of any team since such records began being totted three years ago.
With both teams having kicked four wides in the first half, Donegal added only two more compared to Dublin’s 10.
With 106 contact tackles, Donegal had 25 more than Dublin. This is a statistic that must be paralleled with a 52 per cent possession McGuinness’s side enjoyed over the hour – a decent return considering it was only 31 per cent on 20 minutes.
“I believe that every game is winnable if you get everything right and you’ve got the right attitude,” McGuinness said.
“One thing you can’t fault is the character of these lads. Our preparations and focus was very good going into game. I’m just privileged to be working with them.”
The 7/1 outsiders had pulled off a massive ambush.
Eamon McGee said afterwards that it was a little like the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ when, in 1974 in Zaire, Muhammad Ali opted to take punches from George Foreman, as means of wearing the then world heavyeight champion out. Ali then picked his moment to go on the offensive and win. It is heralded as the ‘rope-a-dope’ technique.
Foreman’s attack wore down his defence. When it wasn’t enough to crack the opponent, he cracked himself.
Ten years earlier, Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, defeated Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title for the first time at Miami Beach.
Clay wasn’t as muted in his confidence but entered the ring as, yes, the 7-1 outsider.
A bit like the man they call ‘The Greatest,’ on Sunday Donegal fooled the world.