Donegal back to 2012 form and can beat Dublin

Jim McGuinness’s team aren’t just bodies behind the ball – they’re organised, clinical and totally in sync

Donegal’s Ryan Bradley and Michael Darragh MacAuley of Dublin during the sides’ All-Ireland football semi-final at Croke Park in August 2011. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.

Donegal’s Ryan Bradley and Michael Darragh MacAuley of Dublin during the sides’ All-Ireland football semi-final at Croke Park in August 2011. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 12:00

People are fickle, aren’t they? When Donegal were coming through in 2011 and 2012, people were up for them because they were an underdog. Then when they won the All-Ireland, it didn’t take long for the backlash to come. People said fair play to them but gave out about their style of play. How many times did you hear somebody go on about the Dubs last year, saying how great it was that they didn’t play the Donegal style?

And now, in 2014, just when it looks like Dublin are turning into one of the great football teams of recent times, all I hear is people going, “Well, hopefully Donegal will put it up to them.” It’s like Donegal are the country’s only hope all of a sudden. Funny how things change.

You had to be impressed with Donegal on Sunday. They’re very organised and very clinical in the way they go about the game and there is no doubt that they’re back to something like their form of 2012. They leave nothing to chance. They don’t rely on one or two stars to get them out of a hole. They play how they play and everyone knows their job to the letter.

Blanket defence

There’s a lot of ignorance around when people talk about Donegal. If it was just a matter of sticking 13 men behind the ball then everyone would be able to do it. I was in Hyde Park on Saturday for Roscommon v Armagh and both sides there were playing with a blanket defence. But the difference between them and Donegal the next day was huge.

Donegal play with purpose and method. They don’t just get bodies back in a wall across the pitch, they move forward and backward and sideways around the pitch in sync with each other. Watch Karl Lacey’s point at the start of the game for an example. Okay, he was lucky enough to get on the ball in the end because it came back to him off the post but the interesting thing about the way Donegal play is how the move started.

This was three minutes into the game. Rory Beggan hit a kick out to midfield, Darren Hughes punched it forward and Lacey picked up the loose ball behind his own 45. The only Donegal players between him and his own goal at the time were the two McGees. But when he kicked it over the bar less than 30 seconds later, only Colm McFadden was ahead of him.

If you watch it again, the most noticeable thing is the movement of all the Donegal players on the pitch. Nobody is static, nobody is hiding. Every player is making a run either to look for a pass or make space. The off-the-ball running is exceptional because it moved the Monaghan players around and nobody knew who to track.

Lacey passed a dozen Monaghan players between the time he picked up the ball and the time he kicked the point, yet nobody decided it was their job to pick him up. That’s because, like Armagh and Roscommon, Monaghan’s blanket defence isn’t as well developed as Donegal’s.

Filtering back

But the other thing to keep an eye on is the Donegal players who are filtering back to allow Lacey on one side and Leo Thompson on the other to attack. Michael Murphy stays around his own 45 all the way through the move.

Christy Toye takes the first pass from Lacey, holds onto it for a few seconds as Lacey goes by him, recycles it to Darach O’Connor and then drops back to fill the space Lacey has left behind him. A couple of passes later, Toye moves up the right as the ball is moved left and Neil Gallagher drops back into that space.

The point is, there is so much more to this than just packing the defence. Jim McGuinness has created a system that places huge trust in the players and spreads responsibility throughout the team. You’re not going out there on a solo run if you’re wearing a Donegal jersey. You’re part of a collective.

In a way, that almost makes you more accountable. When I was playing, one of your jobs was to stop your man scoring. You mightn’t have played all that hectic coming off a pitch after a game but if your man didn’t score, it was always something you could point to.

We played Cavan in the All-Ireland semi-final in 1997 when I was only a young lad. I was marking Dermot McCabe that day in midfield and we had Pa Laide playing wing forward. At one stage, Pa’s man got away from him so I went over to cover him and try to get some bit of a hand in to stop him. I managed to hold him up alright but when the ball went back, who was there to kick it over the bar only McCabe, my man.

I remember at the time nearly lifting Pa out of it. Shamefully enough, I was more annoyed at the fact that my man had scored than Cavan had. And Pa, the fecker, had a right laugh at me afterwards because he knew well that was what had me in a rage. “Jesus Darragh boy, I don’t think my man scored at all, did he?”

With Donegal, there is no my man or your man. The whole thing is based on collective responsibility. I’d say when they talk at half-time, it’s never: “Karl, your man scored two points, you’d want to buck up.” It’s more: “We conceded two points down the right flank, make sure we close that off.” That takes huge trust and a huge amount of buying in from everybody.

It starts with McGuinness. He is obviously a seriously good coach and man manager. He gets all these players to see the virtues of giving themselves up for the team, no matter how much they want to be expressing themselves. Michael Murphy did all the hod carrying against Monaghan and there wasn’t a bother on him. One of the best players in the county and he didn’t mind being out around the middle of the field breaking up attacks.

They take a fair bit of pride in what they do. Donegal clearly like nothing better than to mess up your day. They want to disrupt you, hurry you, make you panic and get rid of the ball carelessly. If and when they come up against Dublin, just you watch how much delight they will take in crashing into Bernard Brogan. They get joy out of making your life miserable. That’s an attitude thing and when it’s tuned in, it’s very hard to combat.

Dublin and Donegal can only meet in the All-Ireland semi-final now and they both have hurdles to jump before they get there. But if they do, I have no doubt that it’s a game Donegal are capable of winning. No doubt whatsoever.

This is a real chance for Donegal now. The age profile of the team dictates their attitude. I’ve said it many times – the closer you are to the end, the less anything matters outside of gathering up another medal. It’s like running out of a burning house, trying to grab as many of your possessions as you can before you go out the door.

Down year

Last year was a down year after two seasons that changed their lives. That happens. When Kerry were going for three-in-a-row in 2008, none of us saw it as a down year, none of us wanted a down year and none of us felt that was what was happening at the time. We made it as far as the final and, for all we knew, we had the same hunger going in that day as any other year. In hindsight, we were on the road a long time. We came again in 2009.

That’s where Donegal are now. They’re coming again. They know that they have a chance to get another All-Ireland in the bag before the team starts breaking up. And the likelihood is that they will have to go through Dublin to do that.

Dublin would still be favourites but Donegal would make them have to win the game in a way that they haven’t had to yet under Jim Gavin. The Dubs wouldn’t find goals anywhere near as easy to come by as they have been doing. They would have to rely on long-range point-kicking to build a score. They’re well able to do that, of course, but they’ll be doing it under more pressure than they’re used to.

Gavin will have a gameplan though we can be sure of that. I was disappointed with Monaghan on Sunday in that their gameplan just seemed limited. They do have guys that can kick long-range points but they didn’t seem to have any plan to get those guys on the ball in areas where it would matter.

I couldn’t understand why a team with Paul Finlay playing at right-wing forward kept running right down the middle of the Donegal defence. Surely what they should have been doing was constantly moving the ball down the left, dragging the Donegal blanket over there, have Finlay stationed out on the right so that he could isolate himself and then burst in off the right into space on the 45 and take the shot with his left foot.

They managed to do that just once in the whole game, which was a waste of their best long-range point scorer. By running down the middle, they only succeeded in crowding the whole area, with Finlay in amongst the crowd. Instead, they ended up shovelling passes out to Dessie Mone coming up from wing back and he got pushed too wide to make a difference. I don’t think he managed a shot in the game.

Dublin won’t make that mistake if and when the sides meet. They will run plays that get Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn on the ball, they will manage possession and pull Donegal one side so they can make space on the other. They will make Donegal push up on them and draw them out with runners like Kevin McManamon and Alan Brogan. It will be such a fascinating tactical battle if it comes to pass.

Odd thing

And the odd thing is, I have a feeling that for all of Dublin’s great play, a lot of people will be up for Donegal. I saw a fella wearing a T-shirt in Dublin one day recently that said “Dublin 1916 – The City That Defeated An Empire”. Nothing about the rest of us, the Dubs did it all by themselves.

That’s the beauty of Irish life. Half the country wants to see Dublin beaten – and if it takes the blanket defence of Donegal to do it, so be it. No doubt if Donegal end up winning it out in September then, we’ll all be crying for the Dubs to come back and save football again next year.

Terrible fickle people altogether.

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