Mickey Whelan doesn’t expect Donegal to change tack
Coaching guru expects Dublin’s superior players to be decisive factor in All-Ireland SFC semi-final
Kevin Nolan (left) is tackled by Marty Boyle of Donegal during the 2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Nolan was a key man for Dublin in his attacking wing back role. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Mickey Whelan: “We attacked in the same way, in 2011, when players like Nolan and James McCarthy were kids. And James McCarthy scored goals in that championship, and in the league”. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
“Don’t go writing big headlines over my name,” says Mickey Whelan, marking his own enduring modesty, although not quite avoiding his enduring influence on Dublin football.
Because no talk about Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final showdown against Donegal would be complete without a word from Whelan: he was coach, mentor, thinker and chief football strategist alongside manager Pat Gilroy when Dublin eventually took out Donegal in their 2011 semi-final, 0-8 to 0-6, on a deathly afternoon that would have tested the patience of Hemingway himself.
Three years on, comparisons with that game are both inevitable and justified. Now 75, Whelan stepped aside after Dublin won the All-Ireland that year, although the first thing he notes is the style of football Dublin are playing now, under Jim Gavin, has only marginally evolved from their style in 2011.
Going forward“I was actually asked about that last year and Dublin’s tactic of going forward,” says Whelan. “Well, who was man of the match in the 2011 All-Ireland final? Who scored the equalising point?
“Kevin Nolan, a wing back. And did he kick that from 75 yards out? No, so this has been a natural evolution, of players getting more confident.
“We attacked in the same way, in 2011, when players like Nolan and James McCarthy were kids. And James McCarthy scored goals in that championship, and in the league. Going forward, and swishhh . . .
“We also had a philosophy, and I think it’s endemic in Dublin now, that says when you don’t have the ball, you press to get it back.
“The method of pressing is a different thing, and may have been introduced at that time. But when you have the ball, you’re trying to make penetrating passes to score. So that means everyone is offensive-minded when you have the ball.
“Does that mean that everybody charges forward? No. And when we don’t have the ball, everybody’s defensive. So we’ve always attacked, and we’ve always defended. We just had a balance. And it was a system, that every player knew his role. So that’s it. No big secret. But we kept it quiet for a while.
“But players always had freedom to go forward. They weren’t standing around doing nothing. They were focused all the time. They knew why they were there. We had practiced it, done it week in, week out. That was a very focused group. Still is.”
It helped that Whelan and Gilroy were imposing this attacking philosophy on young Dublin heads (unlike in 1996-97, when Whelan served two seasons as Dublin manager and found it harder to get through to older heads).
Then, when Donegal were served up as their semi-final opponents in 2011 – after Dublin had racked up 0-22 against Tyrone in their quarter-final – Whelan slightly altered the Dublin philosophy.
“For weeks before that, we played 18 players against 15, in training. We put three extra players in defence. Started them there, and left them there. So we knew exactly what to expect. And sure the whole world knew that to expect, what Donegal were coming with.
“And Donegal were probably right. Every coach and manager has to do what is needed to get the best out of their team, to maximise their strengths.
“ It worked for them, as long as we allowed it to work. But there’s a time to win a game, and be in front, and that’s at the end. Not at the beginning. So we just had to be patient. That was the key.
“We hadn’t won an All-Ireland for 16 years, so there was a lot of pressure. So these were players who hadn’t won an All-Ireland, as well. This present team have won two. And winning an All-Ireland breaks a big barrier.”
Which brings Whelan to Sunday’s game: he’s expecting something similar, more or less, although probably more from a Donegal perspective
“There is no such thing as a right or wrong system. If it works, and players buy into it, it can be really, really effective.
“Donegal haven’t changed that much, but then it wouldn’t surprise me if they changed almost totally. Like if Michael Murphy stayed up front. And Colm McFadden stayed back. Because he (McFadden) is not doing his job as effectively as a forward. He might do it better as a defender.
“And they probably do have a few more options. But nevertheless, because they’ve trained so much in a particular routine, you don’t just switch over. I think they’ve decided that’s still their best method of play.
‘Open enough game’“Most of that Donegal team also have an All-Ireland now. So it’s not the be all and end all. That’s not degrading them. It’s an open enough game.
“If Donegal maximise their system, it will be interesting. It’s nonsense to be giving out about that. Any manager would do it. And Jim McGuinness is no different. I just think Dublin have better players. That’s what it comes down to. If we perform to our best, and they perform to their best, we will win.”