‘Jimmy’s Winnin Matches’, the documentary screened on RTE 1 on Thursday night, revealed nothing about the Donegal project that might be of use to the envious, knowledge-hungry coaches of Ulster.
Aside from the fact that Jimmy has a most beautiful house perched on the edge of the Atlantic and that – as each player told the interviewer – he told them from their first meeting in the Downings Hotel that they would be Ulster Champions by July – they remain a closed book. “Jimmy’s Saying Nothing” might have been a better title.
When the film makers announced their arrival date, I suspect there was another meeting in the Downings Hotel where the troops got their scripts: “Memorise every word boys, then burn them.”
The McGee brothers looked as comfortable as a pair of suspects in Castlereagh Holding Centre in the mid 70s overhearing the groans and roars from the interrogation next door. The spectre of their neighbour and close friend Kevin Cassidy seemed to hang over them as they tried to say as little as possible.
“I’m just grateful to Jimmy that he asked me back when I came home,” said Eamonn,
“I could have been singing Jimmy’s Winnin Matches with the fans in Hill 16.” Brother Neil nodded and told us that after training, he was so tired that he went straight to bed.
This did not come as a surprise to me. I watched one of their training sessions for three hours one night and felt extremely sleepy indeed.
In spite of the secrecy, the documentary was most enjoyable. The breathtaking beauty of the county, the unforgettable memories of their two year adventure and the charisma of the boys was something to bask in.
The astounding pace of their ascent to number one was best embodied in Paddy McGrath’s innocent remark that he was amazed to realise after 20 minutes of the Kerry game that, “we were as good as they were.”
Or as Jack O’Connor graciously put it, “They had the measure of us. I don’t think our lads were ready for how hard they tackled.”
There is more in them. The best way to see this is to compare their performance against Kildare in August 2011 with their performance a year later against Cork. In the Kildare game, it was obvious they were not psychologically ready for the challenges beyond Ulster.
Swept aside Cork
Twelve months later they swept aside the country’s second best team. Cork are an awesome force. Donegal handed them their arses on a plate.
Furthermore, in the games against Kerry, Cork and even in the final, Donegal became distracted at key moments at the enormity of what they were about to achieve.
This explains why Cork and Kerry were both given the opportunity to make late rallies and why Mayo were not beaten out the gate after going seven points down in 10 minutes.
The problem for the rest of us now is that those jitters have been laid to rest. Or as Jim put it, “Sam’s sitting in the front of the bus.”
On Sunday, Tyrone, their only realistic challengers in Ulster, had their first outing of the year. I have heard from an excellent source that Mickey Harte has told them that they will win three of the next five All-Irelands which coming from Tyrone, is not a notion anyone will snigger at. If they were expecting however that the game against Derry would be the beginning of an unbeaten run that would end with the GOAL Challenge in October, they were almost unseated at the first. Only for Conor McAliskey’s late, late goal they would have lost. He is not the first McAliskey to cause bother in Derry.
The game also illustrated that at least a scattering of great players are necessary to achieve great things. Sean Cavanagh is certainly one of those. It sounded almost like heresy when I said it to a Tyrone man at court yesterday, but I believe he may be a more influential player for the county than Peter Canavan.
The three All-Irelands could never have been achieved without him.
Interestingly, when I’m in Kerry, he is the one they talk about. Even the great Maurice Fitzgerald name-checks him. McRory Cup winner, minor and senior All-Ireland winner, young player of the year in 2003, player of the year in 2008, multiple All-Star, International Rules captain. His seven points on Sunday confirm what has long been known, but what has perhaps been taken for granted given the consistently extraordinary level he performs at.
Paddy Heaney wrote an interesting piece this week where he suggested that Tyrone have accelerated away from Derry because while they are obsessed with the county team, we remain obsessed with our clubs.
He set out the statistics which on the face of it bear that contention out. Indeed, the comparative success of Derry clubs is striking. This is however a fallacy.
We had a centre of excellence long before Tyrone (1992). We won an All-Ireland long before them (1993 and don’t forget it). The Derry team I played on had 12 Ulster club winners from three different clubs, but in a five year spell we also won three National Leagues, two Ulster championships and an All-Ireland.
Tyrone are indeed a massive Gaelic football county (the country’s second biggest after Cork) but the statistics when compared are surprising.
On the basis of last year’s census, the Tyrone population is 166,516 (68% from the Catholic background, 54% live in rural areas, the rest in the large towns). The Derry population meanwhile is 233,500 (Derry City’s population approx 120,000, entire County 60% from the Catholic background). Here is where it becomes interesting.
Tyrone’s GAA Population stands at 48 Clubs with membership of 19,736. Derry’s is only slightly smaller, with 40 Clubs and a membership of around 15,100. The obsession with clubs argument doesn’t wash.
If you think it does, put a mike in a Carrickmore or Ardboe dressing room before a championship match.
Great Players Needed
The reality is that a core of great players is needed to win big. Donegal have Michael Murphy, Karl Lacey, Colm McFadden and several other high quality players.
Tyrone had McGuigan, Cavanagh, Gormley et al.
It is in this area that Derry are struggling.
A few off-spring of the Downeys and McKeevers and McCuskers are on their way, but that will take a while. Until then, we will simply turn our noses up when Donegal or Tyrone win All-Irelands and remind them that we in Derry are only interested in club football.