Mind games must be won before you can win the game


THE MIDDLE THIRD:MINDSET IS a huge thing. Go into a championship game with the wrong one and it will cost you. The landscape of the championship is changing with every passing weekend this year and so far, it’s the teams with the right mindset who are making the biggest impression.

And as Kildare found out on Sunday – and Dublin got reminded of – teams who go in thinking they only have to turn up are getting punished.

I was playing in a charity game for autism on Saturday above in Parnell Park and afterwards a few of us old so-called experts stood watching the Donegal v Tyrone game. And even though it wasn’t exactly the most fun game in the world to spend an hour in front of, the one thing everybody was impressed by was Donegal’s mindset. They were the same against Tyrone as they had been against Derry and against Cavan before them.

It doesn’t matter who the opposition is, they go out with the same mission – to empty themselves and play to their game plan.

Nobody would argue that they have the best collection of players in the country, but, the way they play, that doesn’t matter. They run, they tackle, they overwhelm the teams they play against. They take their points well when they get their chance and teams find it so, so hard to score against them.

It’s possible that before the year is out, some team will decide to kick long against them and will do it quickly and accurately enough to cause them problems in the full-back line, but nobody has yet. And until they do, Jimmy McGuinness and his team will keep rising.

Their mindset is their greatest strength. They go out there totally convinced of what they’re going to do for each other. They’re very focused, they don’t panic, they stick to their system. And the best thing about it is that everybody else knows all about it and tries to prepare accordingly.

Their attitude gives them a start on most teams even before a ball is kicked because everybody they come up against now is having to play the game on their terms. It’s a serious weapon to have in your locker.

The one concern I would have for Donegal is that there might not be a very long future in this level of intensity. Their bodies can take the punishment in the short term but can they do it in the medium and long term?

They had three fellas go down with hamstring twinges in the warm-up on Saturday and Neil McGee had to come off after three minutes. That’s obviously a bit of a freak occurrence but you’d have to worry about it in years to come.

Donegal have taken the Tyrone template and ramped it up even further, but how times over the past decade have we seen Tyrone’s season ruined by injuries? When they’ve had all their players fit and well they’ve been contenders but go through their best team from those years and you can’t name too many of them who haven’t had to do a good spell on the sidelines with injury. It can’t all just be coincidence.

But that’s for down the road.

For here and now, Donegal are going out for every game with a clear idea of what they want to do and how they want to do it. You’d be surprised at how far something that simple and straightforward will take a team. It will make them stand apart because not every team has it.

Even the very good teams struggle with their mindset from time to time. Take Dublin. They went out to play against Wexford on Sunday with their minds only half on the job. We all know how good the Brogans are, exceptional footballers both of them. But they just didn’t seem to want to put in the work on Sunday that they’ve done on other days.

At one stage, the corner back Michael Fitzsimons was coming out with the ball under the Cusack Stand and looking for someone to come and take it off him.

He needed either Alan or Bernard to come and make a hard run to give him an option, but neither of them did and he was bottled up in traffic. It just proved once again that Dublin are a pretty average team when they don’t work hard.

They were dug out by a few fellas who had the right attitude for what the day needed. Paul Flynn didn’t drop his guard once and gathered up some great ball from kick-outs. Michael Darragh Macauley had a huge effect off the bench and you’d have to think he will start the next day. But when neither of your midfielders is finishing out the game and even Stephen Cluxton is hitting loose kick-outs, you know that the mindset going into the game wasn’t right.

Wexford are one of the better Division Three teams but I don’t think they’re as close to Dublin as they looked on Sunday. The Dublin players were looking around them for others to pick up the slack and in the likes of Flynn, Macauley and Kevin McManamon, they found them. They went in with the wrong mindset but they got away with it.

It happens quite easily, especially when you’re coming up against a team that you’ve beaten a few times in a row over a period of years. Dublin have played Wexford four times in five seasons and have beaten them every time.

No matter how much Dublin would have been talking in the build-up that they weren’t going to take Wexford lightly, they still knew in the back of their heads that they were probably going to come through. The same thing applied to Kildare but they weren’t good enough to get around it.

A game can get away pretty quickly from a team who isn’t completely up for it. If players have spent the run-up to the game with family and friends talking about the final and not the semi-final, or just assuming they’re going to get through without a bother, a laziness of thinking can set in.

It definitely did after Dublin gave Louth an unmerciful hammering – everybody just assumed they’d do the same to Wexford. They went in believing they’d win and they believed all the way through, even as Ben Brosnan was getting loads of chances from frees and missing them. At no point did I think Wexford would win.

That’s the big factor. If you don’t think there’s a possibility that you might lose the game, you can fall very easily into the trap of being complacent. The crowd won’t help you either – they only woke up on Sunday when Diarmuid Connolly got sent off for Dublin. I was in Kerry teams that often came up against weaker teams and they would give us a bit of bother from time to time.

But we knew in our heart and soul that we would get over the line in the end.

There were times we were poxed lucky – against Limerick in ’03 and Sligo in ’09 – but by and large we knew we’d get there.

And that can be a problem. It doesn’t matter how often you tell yourself that it’s not a foregone conclusion, the older you get the harder it is to convince yourself. It’s a kind of purgatory – you know you just have to hunker down and get through it. There’s no glamour involved, it’s just a means to an end.

I used to look at Seámus Moynihan and wonder how he did it. How did he make sure he played well every time he put on a pair of boots?

Even last weekend at that bloody charity game, he never put a foot wrong. It’s a pride thing I think. There’s that old story about Michael Jordan being asked how he kept his standards up so high every night and him replying, “Well there’s probably a guy in the crowd who has never seen me play before and never will again. I want him to go away knowing he had seen Michael Jordan play.”

The likes of Moynihan and Kieran McGeeney were exactly like that – their work-rate, their intensity never dropped no matter who the opposition was.

That was what was surprising about Kildare’s performance on Sunday. If McGeeney has instilled one thing in them in his time in charge so far, it’s that they usually go out with the right mindset. They very rarely take anything for granted – maybe the odd Leinster championship game at the start but we all would have thought those days were gone now. Yet all they had to do was take their feet slightly off the gas and come up against a team that was bouncing and look what happened.

Meath went out on Sunday with exactly the right mindset. They were straining at the leash to get on the pitch, every one of them. I was standing on the sideline as Jamie Queeney was warming up and he was chomping at the bit to get in. He nearly had his first point kicked before he stepped on the pitch and lo and behold, as soon as he got the ball he launched it over the bar from close to where he had been warming up. He knew exactly what he was going to do when he came on.

You have to hand it to Banty, he got his players ready for the big day and sent them out primed to do what was necessary. I was delighted for him. He took awful abuse in Meath after the end of the league and he wouldn’t have felt he had many friends he could call on around then. Well, I kept a good eye on him as the photographers circled him for the money shot at the end of the game and I can tell you, he wasn’t short of friends looking to get their face in the photo with him.

Meath probably won’t have enough quality to beat Dublin in the final but you can be guaranteed that their mindset will not be a problem.

Pat Gilroy’s big job between now and then will be to ensure that Dublin’s isn’t either.

We can’t carry on ignoring problem with referees

This refereeing problem is only getting worse. I’m starting to feel like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, writing a letter a week until something is done.

I really don’t think people are taking it seriously or that the GAA actually realises the damage bad refereeing is doing to the championship. Yet again last weekend, a team like Louth had to put up with a referee who got a massive call wrong in sending Darren Clarke off in the first half. We can’t carry on as if these calls aren’t having an effect on the outcome of games.

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