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).