My 18-year-old niece who lives with us has no interest in Gaelic football, preferring teen vampire films. When I arrived home from Croke Park on Sunday night, I was surprised when she said, “That Donegal manager is really hot.”
“Really?” I asked, taken aback.
“You bet he is,” my wife piped up, just a little too enthusiastically for my liking...
Jim is indeed the hottest property in Irish sport. Donegal’s progress has been an extraordinary personal triumph for the Sherlock Holmes of Gaelic football. Supremely logical, well educated in his chosen field, obsessive, competitive and clear minded, it is apparent that there is more to come. Interviewed after the game, he started with the following remark, “In the first half we were a wee bit lethargic.” Just think of that.
He followed it up with, “It’s all about moving forward. There are two things at play here, and the first is to make every player we have better. Then we want to improve our goals as a team and that is our only focus. The players and squad can improve. That’s our challenge as coaches. The job is always in the future.”
It is clear that there are significant areas for improvement. At the moment, their defensive formation is catching teams on the hop. Cork had spent the three weeks before the game playing controlled games where the ‘A’ team played against 17 men and worked the ball quickly through the hands. Three weeks is hopelessly inadequate against Jim’s invention. In essence, Cork were forced into doing something they’re not used to doing. Jim’s approach has made good, orthodox Gaelic football managers look like witless novices. The cute fox like John Brennan who manages men shrewdly and picks a good team; The three time All-Ireland winning Kerry manager Jack O’Connor, who thought he had seen it all; The calm leader like Conor Counihan with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Cork football and an awareness of the sort of characters needed to win championship matches. Jim has made an entire breed of GAA manager redundant. So, on Sunday, as I wrote beforehand, Cork were playing in a match they couldn’t win. The game, if you like, was rigged.
None of this disguises the fact that Donegal still have much work to do. The decision to play three inside forwards – McBrearty, Murphy and McFadden – was, I initially thought, a good one. Until I saw how poorly it worked in practice. For a manager renowned for meticulous planning, this was appalling stuff. Firstly, the movement of the inside trio was hopeless. They simply bunched together. Cork’s ‘one v one’ defending was crying out for them to run at diagonals off each other into the space. Secondly, the ball in – as a result of the fact that they grouped together so witlessly – was high and imprecise. Put another way, each ball in was a gamble. As a result of this combination of poor movement and poor ball, Donegal wasted an opportunity to put Cork out of business much sooner than they did. The result of this carnival of hopeful kicking in? In the first minute, Michael Murphy won a very dubious free. That aside, there were only two well directed passes throughout the next 71 minutes. From one of these, Murphy set up a score for McFadden, a tantalising glimpse of what they are capable of. From the second, a straightforward foot pass from Mark McHugh in the second half, Murphy won another close in free. An atrocious return.
McGuinness will no doubt have this on his to-do list. There is no reason it cannot be perfected, since all his outfield players are excellent foot passers (from McGlynn the whole way out to McHugh) and his inside trio (accepting that McBrearty is still very raw and has much to learn) are expert forwards with the artillery to cause serious damage. When (not if) Jim gets this right, they will be immeasurably improved. Imagine the problems they would pose if they can switch and mix their running game with an accurate kicking game? Donegal meets Crossmaglen?
Another vulnerable area for them – though most managers don’t identify this weakness – is the fact that although their middle and half back area is impenetrable because of the way they flood it, there is space in their full back line if the ball is moved accurately with quick kick-passing. Colm O’Neill scored 1-3 from play on Sunday but, luckily for Donegal, was woefully underused. Cork – instead of kicking the ball swiftly into this area, did what most teams do and tried to move the ball slowly and laterally round the blanket. As they ran out of steam and confidence, the turnovers mounted and their doom was sealed.
These two issues have not been significant to date. But if they meet the Dubs as I expect them to, they will be. Dublin – like Donegal – have a ferocious and highly effective defensive system. Unlike other teams, they will not fall into the trap of being sucked upfield leaving an empty motorway in front of their own goals for Kavanagh and Co. to sprint into. Donegal’s one dimensional game plan of running through the middle will be compromised and in that event, the game will become a war of attrition, since Donegal as yet have not sufficiently developed their kicking game to the inside danger men.
On Sunday, it was only when they abandoned the failed kicking tactic after half time and resorted to their running game that they pulled away. Also, Bernard Brogan and friends are potentially lethal in front of goal and Dublin will kick accurately to them at every opportunity. In turn, this will force Donegal – as it did last year – to play deeper and commit more numbers to their defensive area. Which means they are starting their counter-attacks from a hemmed in position. All of which is exactly what happened to Donegal last year against the Dubs.
Jim is hot now, very hot. But as he knows, this can all change very abruptly. There is important work to be done. Donegal are in the fortunate position of having a thinker at the helm who knows that. It is, after all, elementary ...