“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly. Then he wove a subtle web, in a little corner sly, and set his table ready, to dine upon the Fly.”
This week, Jim McGuinness’ parlour is in Clones, the table is set and his men are waiting patiently for the fly to arrive. Last year, Donegal were novices in the art of web weaving. Having trussed up their flies in Ulster one after another, they messed about when they got to Croke Park and let the big bluebottle escape. This year, the spider is bigger and stronger and faster. Escaping it is going to present a monumental challenge, even for highly intelligent flies like Tyrone.
“I don’t know what went wrong today” said John Brennan, as he surveyed the wreckage of Derry’s Ulster championship campaign a fortnight ago. “ We worked for five or six weeks on getting to grips with Donegal’s system.” Five or six weeks? Jim must have smiled when he heard that. He has a rule of thumb that he spoke about recently at a chat show in Belfast: To introduce even a small refinement to a system requires a minimum of eight full training sessions. John Brennan’s five weeks dwarfs the tactical work that Derry’s 1993 team did. We simply played, using our brains and discussing things amongst each other. Not even twenty years on, the inter-county game is unrecognisable.
Watching Derry being sucked into Donegal’s footballing Black Hole, I looked across at Brennan and felt sorry for him. “Get stuck into them, boys”, “Get tight on your men”, “Let your man know you’re there” are useless words when it comes to facing Donegal. The Derry lads spoke after the game about the constant communication between their opponents and their apparent use of code words. “Paul” was shouted regularly. Only Donegal don’t have a Paul. When a defender shouted “squeeze”, their formation immediately changed. It is reminiscent of the complex codes used by American football teams: “ 43, 27, 32, hut hut hut.” and a million miles away from the traditional vocabulary of Gaelic football. Karl Lacey deliberately took Paddy Bradley on a series of lung bursting runs upfield in the first half. As Karl took off, a Donegal colleague stepped across Paddy and blocked his run for a second. Instead of Bradley being able to get a hold of him early on and stifle the run, he was forced to chase him the length of the field. “Are you ready to go again?” a team mate would ask Karl when he arrived back in position. Like the physical war, the psychological war was unrelenting.
Derry went into the parlour. Resistance was futile. Donegal’s three hour long training sessions are the scene for the dullest, most repetitive work imaginable. Last year, I watched them train at St Eunan’s main pitch in Letterkenny, ten days before the All-Ireland semi final. When one of the Eunan’s committee members came over to say hello, I expressed surprise that on the eve of such a massive game there were no spectators there to watch them. “ It’s so f****ing boring Joe, how could you watch that?” Boring it may be, but undeniably ingenious. Time and again the ball was played to Colm McFadden. Facing three defenders, he had to win it or lay it out to an inrushing team mate, who was himself swamped by extra defenders. The idea is to get them used to working scores under the most severe pressure imaginable. When McFadden was on his knees, Murphy stepped in and worked frantically against the trio to get a shot off. And so it continued. The pressure is so crazy that when they come to play competitive games, they must think they are playing five a side pub league. Every aspect of the game plan has been stripped down and examined. The players have been programmed, like a life sized computer game. It is joyless and scientific, functionally perfect, but virtually impossible to defeat.
From Jim’s perspective, Mickey Harte’s defence is too open. His players’ physiques are too slight, built as they are for running hard for seventy minutes. McGuinness’ players meanwhile are now stronger than the Dubs. The 6.30am gym sessions have helped them to become the hardest hitting Gaelic football team I have ever seen. Like the front row of the American football grid iron, they hit with the body straight down the middle. Derry have a big team. A fortnight ago we had three blood subs, all from facial injuries after wrenching body hits. Every time a Donegal and Derry man collided, the Derry man was driven back. Big Joe Diver, all 6’6” and 16 stone of him was knocked on his arse every time he rashly brought the ball into contact. Think South African rugby. When Joe McMahon was curbing Michael Murphy in last year’s epic Ulster semi-final, Leo McCloone nearly decapitated him with a huge hit. Big Joe was carted off, badly concussed. Murphy went on to set up the two match winning goals. The student has become the Master.
To score against Donegal requires three things. Firstly, a really excellent target man and accurate long kicked passes into him. Tyrone do not have this. Secondly, very accurate long range finishers in the half back line. Neither do they have this. Thirdly, an ability to win frees in the danger area. Here, Tyrone are dangerous, as they are experts at running through the middle in numbers transferring the ball accurately with quick hand passes. Also, they have a few players who treat the Gaelic pitch as though it were a giant bouncy castle. On the other hand, Donegal - in spite of the enormous physicality they bring to the tackle, are brilliant at doing it without fouling. Donegal’s system is more efficient. Less can go wrong. Also, their best players are at the height of their powers. Tyrone’s meanwhile, with the exception of the potentially great Peter Harte, are on the slide.
The spider is bigger and faster and hungrier. The self-doubt that beset it last year when it had the Dubs wriggling in the web has been banished. You know how the story ends:
“The fly she buzzed aloft, then near she drew at last
up jumped the cunning Spider, and fiercely held her fast.
He dragged her up his winding stair, into his dismal den,
Into his little parlour....... she ne’er came out again!”