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Donegal's gameplan and work ethic charted a course to shock victory over Dublin

Declan Bogue

There is a lonely and rather remarkable crossroads somewhere in Monaghan that has a discreet yet huge significance for Donegal football.

For it was there that Michael Murphy and Neil McGee were travelling to International Rules training in Dublin and discussing what to do about getting over the hurt and humiliation of losing their All-Ireland and Ulster crowns, with a 16-point trashing by Mayo the final act.

They were trying to find out the intentions of Jim McGuinness.

"Somebody texted him through that we needed to get this sorted," reveals McGee in the moments after Sunday's semi-final, "and Jim was hesitating about whether to stay or go."

So what did they do? Murphy pulled over, turned the car around, and headed for Donegal to get it sorted.

"It was probably the best decision we ever made," the Gweedore man says with a huge dollop of understatement.

Those good intentions have brought Donegal back to their third All-Ireland final, their second in three years. The reversal of their form has been nothing short of astonishing. There are no secrets to sport though. It's all about working hard, says McGee.

"Looking back to where we were last year, it wasn't a good place with the amount of injuries we had to key players," he said.

"We broke it down how many training sessions we did and we didn't do half of what we've done this year.

"You can see it, there's a freshness there. You add in a couple of players, the likes of Ryan McHugh, Odhran MacNiallais, Darach O'Connor, these boys are really pushing it on. Big Neil (Gallagher) has an injury-free run and he's going well."

Although, it helps if you have one of the game's brightest thinkers and innovators on the line. Jim McGuinness has broken plenty of teams and managers by reconfiguring the roles of players in his team, here was no different.

They delivered a performance that spoke of a team who spent five days in Johnstown House consumed with the task of beating the team that couldn't be beat, a tag that attaches itself rather too readily to Dublin sides.

McGee's role was to watch Bernard Brogan, just as he has with other marquee forwards such as Colm Cooper and Colm O'Neill in 2012. He restricted him to three points, but only one from play in the second half. Brogan also uncharacteristically hooked two frees wide, his confidence broken by the speed and strength of the 28-year-old. McGee has two inches, along with a one and three-quarters stone on Dublin's poster boy forward, and made use of every bit of it.

"We watched a lot of videos of Dublin these last few weeks. We were away for five days and Jim more or less broke down their gameplan and we exploited it," he began.

"We knew we would get the openings and it was a matter of pushing the bodies forward and supporting. The last time we played Dublin (2011), we didn't get the bodies forward but we knew if we pushed six or seven bodies forward we would get the openings with the runners and it worked well."

There were certain tweaks that at first glance appear confusing, but in the end worked out. Such as Neil Gallagher playing in an advanced role. It meant Michael Darragh Macauley hadn't his midfield platform of making runs down the centre, therefore robbing Dublin of their ability to break the lines.

Another was how Donegal won their breaks. The kickout strategies of both were decoded, leading to frustration from the normally unflappable Stephen Cluxton. But Neil Gallagher delivered another performance in the second half that ranks alongside the 2012 semi-final against Cork.

The difference this time being that instead of catching, he was either flicking the ball on, or tapping it down to Ryan McHugh and Patrick McBrearty. With the Dublin side committed to pushing forward, they penetrated the space behind and were lethal in attack. It made a mockery of the pre-game odds of 1/7 on for Dublin, but McGee chose not to indulge in any Schadenfreude.

"It was an All-Ireland semi-final, Ulster champions and Leinster champions – they were kind of big odds," he said.

"But in fairness the way the Dubs were going it was understandable the way the odds were.

"The bookies had probably been cleaned out with them all year. We didn't look at that. We concentrated on our own game."

And the next game for McGee is the biggest of them all. In that, he may come up against Kerry attacker James O'Donoghue, another marquee man.

Still, McGee has made his reputation on beating the best, before that comes the research. "He's racking up big scores so I have to do a lot of homework on him now," he says. "It's about restricting him more than anything so I need to up my game."

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