2011 and all that: how Donegal stepped through the looking glass

Was the semi-final football’s dark ages or the dawn of a seminal shift in tactics?

Dublin’s Dermot Connolly is grabbed by Donegal’s Neil McGee following an incident that resulted in a straight red card for Connolly. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin’s Dermot Connolly is grabbed by Donegal’s Neil McGee following an incident that resulted in a straight red card for Connolly. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Fri, Aug 29, 2014, 03:00

In the furore that surrounded the Dublin-Donegal championship match of three years ago perspective counted for a lot. For some there was fascination in the tactical innovation but for others it was football desecration.

Statistics set the tone: 0-8 to 0-6 was the lowest scoring All-Ireland semi-final since the 1950s and the days of saddle-leather footballs and one-hour matches.

As he sat in the crowd watching, Kerry manager Jack O’Connor had his own view. A week previously he had led Kerry to an All-Ireland final for the fifth time in six attempts and was in Croke Park to check the opposition.

“It was the most surreal game that I was ever at. I think after about 15 or 20 minutes there was sustained booing coming from the crowd. I’d never seen that previously.

“Donegal did something that day that had never been seen in Croke Park before. They basically parked the bus on Dublin and said, ‘let’s see you break this down’.

“To be fair – and I know Jim McGuinness got massive criticism afterwards –one thing stood out for me. You need ferocious courage to go with a game plan like that and stick to it and get the players to stick to it. That takes some convincing.”

Both counties were nervous going into the match, if for different reasons. Dublin were embarking on a fifth All-Ireland semi-final since winning their most recent Sam Maguire, 16 years previously, and had lost the lot including the previous year. For manager Pat Gilroy, if progress was to be maintained they had to reach the final.

Defensive system

Donegal were different. In his first year as manager, Jim McGuinness had been determined to tighten up the team and implement an extremely structured defensive system. Donegal determined that Dublin, scorers of 0-22 against Tyrone, wouldn’t find the going easy against them.

“We had won nothing in 19 years,” McGuinness says now. “We had won an Ulster title a month prior to that and we weren’t a long way down the tracks in terms of our development. It was a game that came too soon for us.

“It was too much too soon. We got the defensive thing right but we weren’t far enough down the track to be able to attack well enough.”

Dublin prepared for Donegal and their likely strategies. According to their coach Mickey Whelan, practice matches pitted 15 against 18 in order to simulate the challenge.

Survivors’ narrative

But in the first half it didn’t make much difference. Centre forward Barry Cahill recalled this week how one of the team’s strategies, moving the ball quickly into attack with 50-metre kick passes, became redundant at the very start when Donegal wing forwards Mark McHugh and Ryan Bradley didn’t even wait to see who’d won the throw-in and hared back to stand sentry in front of the full-back line.

The survivors’ narrative is that Dublin didn’t panic but that’s not how it looked in the first half as overly-optimistic shots were lamped in from long distance without success. Alan Brogan thrashed a lineball wide in frustration just before half-time and Donegal led by 0-4 to 0-2.

The match was arguably decided in the minutes that followed. Dublin brought on Kevin McManamon because with the quick-ball strategy a non-runner it was decided they needed to run the ball at the Donegal defence to try and beat the tackle or draw the foul.

Speaking on Newstalk this week, Barry Cahill said that the idea was to run in clusters and move the ball quickly through the hands and to probe and find gaps.

It mightn’t have mattered had Donegal not failed to take an inviting goal chance within a minute of the restart. Dublin had lost full back Rory O’Carroll in the first half and were a bit jittery.

Colm McFadden had single-handedly occupied the entire Dublin defence, as Gilroy kept his backs in place. Now with a clever dummy he was through on goal but shot slightly too high and instead of a five-point lead they were three ahead.

Last score

The end for Donegal came in the space of a couple of minutes. Their last score was registered in the 44th minute to put them 0-6 to 0-3 ahead and then their defensive linchpin Karl Lacey had to go off injured. Dublin painstakingly assembled five unanswered points.

McGuinness’s most revealing commentary on the match came a few months later just before the next season’s league began in February 2012.

“The only regret I have is that about three weeks out from the game what we were getting through the middle was very exciting. We were playing Michael Murphy out the field and he was strong, he was powerful, Christy Toye was coming back to himself and we had Ryan Bradley – we had a lot of strong, big men with power and pace and we were practising the game-plan, the ability to turn the ball, work it, hand it to them and then drive through and ask the question.

Learning curve

“The only disappointing thing about it was that we didn’t get enough of that over the course of the 70 minutes. If we continued to do that and done the job defensively and continued to be explosive and dynamic then we could have gone on to win that game easily.

“I have my own conclusions in my head (about what went wrong). For some of them it was psychological, for some of them . . . . I think they regressed into themselves over the course of the game. The closer they got to the All-Ireland final, then the more they just wanted to see it out instead of driving towards it. That is a learning curve if that is the case. They can use that this year if they get into that position again.”

Between the two counties, they have won the last three All-Irelands. Along the way to the 2012 title Donegal met Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final and won a tight match. O’Connor remains impressed by the buy-in from McGuinness’s players three years ago.

“If I tried to do that with the Kerry boys would they implement it? I’d say there wouldn’t be a chance. The players and the supporters just wouldn’t row in behind it so I was fascinated from that point of view; how he got a bunch of players to follow that template absolutely to the letter of the law was fascinating to watch.

“For players to buy into that they really have to trust the manager.

“Obviously at the time it looked as if this was taking football to the dark ages but the following year he tweaked it somewhat and got the counter-attacking game going, which proved to be successful.”

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