AS I was walking out of Ireland’s Calcutta last Sunday, towards my well appointed car-parking space in the ditch on the Fivemiletown Road, a Derryman behind me said to his mate: “Nothing went right for us today, f...ing nothing!”
The papers on Monday claimed: “Enda Muldoon was poor” and “Conleth Gilligan didn’t function.”
They continued: “Mark Lynch made no impact” and “Sean Leo McGoldrick got a lot of ball but did nothing with it.”
On Monday afternoon, I was talking to Sean Leo. “I’m very down,” he said.
“Don’t be,” I replied. “What happened to you yesterday was inevitable. The individual is powerless against such a meticulously crafted plan as Jim’s. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had Jamie Clarke and Colm Cooper in the full-forward line. Yesterday was not a player issue. It was a managerial issue.”
“You’re right,” he said after a minute. “There was nothing we could do. Maybe we can play a bit of football this weekend against Kildare?”
The three weeks after the Armagh game was not enough to plan for Donegal. The only way to combat their style is to do unto them what they are doing to you, but this takes serious work on the training ground over several months. Most managers, including John Brennan, would cut off their right arm before they would start breeding that sort of game-plan.
The reason that nothing went right for Derry on Sunday was because Jim McGuinness planned it that way. If Mark Lynch had made an impact Jim would have been disgusted.
For Sean Leo or Conleth Gilligan to have played their usual game, it would have required the Donegal players to deliberately sabotage the game-plan that has been drilled into them since Jim’s arrival. With his typical class, Jim played down his role on Sunday evening, telling the media it was all about the players.
“They’re the best group of lads I’ve ever had the privilege of being around” and all the other cliches he trotted out couldn’t disguise the fact that this was a brilliant managerial triumph. Make no mistake, this Ulster title is all about Jim.
Put another way, he has given the players the means to succeed. Without him, they would still be the same sorry group that were trounced by a mediocre Armagh almost exactly 12 months ago. Armagh’s winning margin that day was nine points. A good way to put that statistic into perspective is that in the four Championship games that made Donegal Ulster champions, they conceded 0-7 against Antrim, 1-8 (the goal was a penalty) against Cavan, 0-9 against Tyrone and 0-8 against Derry. This is not because the players worked harder. Rather, they worked more efficiently within a meticulously plotted structure.
Put another way, they are putting their shoulders to the wheel because this year when they do it, the wheel moves forward.
It may not be pretty, but it is a thing of genius. Insofar as it is possible to achieve, nothing has been left to chance. The full-backs are never left one against one. The many sweepers are quickly into position if possession is lost. One remains there permanently just in case.
To ensure that they can get their defensive force-field switched on in time to stymie attacks, they foul systematically out the field. An opposing half-back wins the midfield break and is immediately hauled back. Enda Muldoon takes a clean high catch and quickly finds himself in a tangle of Donegal arms. This is not accidental. It is worked on exhaustively in training so that the players are conditioned to do it without thought.
Fouling without getting a yellow card is an art form that occupies a chapter of its own in Jim’s coaching manual. The other effect of this is that deep frustration soon grips the opposition. In fact, the key aim of the entire defensive strategy is to psychologically break down the opponent.
When good players are denied the opportunity to play their normal game, they eventually become dispirited and panicky. Witness the number of times Derry players kicked wild efforts for points. The groan from the Derry crowd, the embarrassment for the player, the agitation of the sideline. These are crucial products of the strategy.
Meanwhile, because each Donegal player knows precisely what his role is, he remains focused. Conleth Gilligan runs to the sideline because it is the only place where there is space. As he does, the sweeper in front of him cuts off the pass. Derry’s outfield player either has to avoid the pass or give it accurately along the line, swerving it past the sweeper. Even if Conleth gets it, he is surrounded and ends up being dispossessed or hand-passing it back to the man who gave it to him, usually while on his knees through a thicket of legs. The laws of physics don’t you know.
The extent of Jim’s achievement cannot be overestimated. It is one thing to want to play such a game. It is another entirely to be able to implement it effectively. This requires an ability to perceptively explain to players exactly what their roles are. More importantly, it demands a manager who inspires faith. Since it is repellent to footballers natural instincts, their natural response to it is to reject it. For this reason, the manager has to demonstrate to them quickly that it works. Jim did this.
An unbeaten league (save for the dead rubber at the end) persuaded the group they were in good hands. After the Tyrone victory, any remaining doubts disappeared. After Sunday, even a sceptical Donegal public is now on board.
The game plan works beautifully. I have heard people say that Michael Murphy (pictured left) is having a poor year. To my mind, he has been the outstanding player of the Ulster Championship. He set up the two goals against Tyrone (only great players have that sort of vision and touch).
On Sunday he kicked two points from play, set up four points and scored the penalty that wasn’t. That is a contribution of 1-6, a point more than Derry’s tally. Look at Michael Hegarty. His career looked over and yet there he was on Sunday, sweeping forward to drive in beautiful long diagonal passes and kick fine points from play. Likewise Colm McFadden. Before this year, he was thought to be flaky. Now he is transformed into a lethal, economical finisher, whose free-taking is absolutely secure.
“Wait till somebody gets four points up against them” a Cavan man said to me outside the ground, which is another fallacy. At the higher level, if anyone goes four points behind they are in trouble.
Anyway, Tyrone were five up and still got swallowed up in the end. Their strategy keeps the scoring rate so low that they only need around 1-10 to win.
“They’ll be well beaten in Croke Park” is another line I heard peddled outside the ground. I couldn’t resist.
“By whom?” I asked.
“Kerry” came the response. When I pointed out that Kerry were the best team in Ireland and asked him who else Donegal couldn’t beat, he fell silent. I for one will not be betting against them.
They are growing in confidence. They take away the opposition’s strength and disguise their own weaknesses. They have a couple of brilliant finishers. They are cynical, smart, tough and fast.
If only everything in life was as reliable as Jim’s blanket. “Vorsprung durch technik, you know like” as they say round Glenties . . .