Northern light burns brighter

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

KEITH DUGGANlooks at how Donegal manager Jim McGuinness has completely revolutionised the county’s playing style and fortunes

“Brian McEniff used to be able to pull a boy down from the side of a mountain with a black curly

head on him and he’d be a star. Donegal had that natural ability. But now the game is different.”

– Joe Kernan, June 2012

DONEGAL WERE All-Ireland champions but looked dead on their feet against Armagh in the Ulster semi-final of 1993. June 27th was, according to Paddy Downey who was in the press box in Breffni Park, “the hottest day of this chameleon summer”.

Armagh, young and ambitious, had matched the temperature in more than just the colour of their shirts. With a few minutes to go Brian McEniff sent in a young substitute by the name of John Duffy, who quickly clipped a point and then added a sublime equalising point deep in injury time to rob the day from Armagh.

A week later, Duffy was rewarded with a starting place and continued to torment Armagh with an outrageous left-foot goal. That opened the gates: Donegal won by 2-16 to 1-7 and McEniff introduced more young faces, including a skinny, athletic forward named Jim McGuinness.

Strangely, the Glenties man had been part of the All-Ireland winning panel the previous September; a teenager on a veteran team. But he made his championship debut a summer later. That day was an interesting crossroads. Within a decade, Armagh had transformed their fortunes, winning their first All-Ireland title and establishing the blueprint for physically imposing, ultra-disciplined ball teams with a clearly-defined game plan and no little skill.

McGuinness and Duffy, meanwhile, spent the next six years playing together on promising Donegal teams that never got to light the cigar.

Duffy was the embodiment of what Donegal football was supposed to be about: gifted and cavalier. Duffy also closed his Ulster championship book against Armagh in 1999. This time, Donegal lost out in a replay and the Ballyshannon man remembers the change Armagh had undergone in six years. “We scored two quick goals but they came back and it went to a replay. But those two games: they took it to a different level. Their fitness and their hitting – I had never encountered anything like it, even against Cork or Kerry or those teams. It was the first time I had experienced the benefit of the body-building in Gaelic football.”

In Thursday’s edition of the Donegal Democrat, Duffy spoke about the reinvention of the county team under Jim McGuinness. It has been a metamorphosis. Like a lot of people, he can’t quite get his head around the speed with which the Glenties man has transformed a dissolute and demoralised group of free-style footballers into what they have become. He is excited not just about this season but in terms of the bigger picture and he believes the sudden talk of Donegal as contenders is justified.

“I don’t see anything wrong with being confident about a team,” he reasons. “Why not? Players thrive on it. Kerry teams are spoken of like that all the time. Look, there is no reason that if this year can be Cork’s year or Dublin’s year it can’t be Donegal’s year. It is clear Donegal are as well prepared as any team in Ireland has ever been.”

After their deconstruction of Derry, Donegal were subject to flattery from unusual quarters.

On the Sunday Game, where the team had been pilloried last summer, Pat Spillane acknowledged they are travelling at impressive speed. The praise drew suspicions: one possible explanation was the Kerry man was due to participate in a subsequently cancelled GAA road show in Letterkenny on Tuesday.

But Joe Brolly, the former Derry player who had been equally hostile to the defensive system Donegal used last year, wrote what amounted to a concession letter in a Sunday newspaper. It was as if Donegal-Derry was his oracle for the football future and it frightened him. He spoke about the code words used against Derry and described Donegal as “the hardest-hitting Gaelic football team I have ever seen.”

He said their training sessions are so tough and pressurised that championship games must seem like a stroll in the park. “The players have been programmed. There is no beauty in it. It is entirely functional. Visitors to the old Soviet Union remarked at the fact that buildings were never painted. This is football without the paint. Joyless and scientific but virtually impossible to beat.”

But McGuinness is at pains to emphasise they are playing the team they most admire today.

Tyrone could easily win this semi-final but the result won’t diminish the extraordinary influence McGuinness has exerted not just on his team but on those interested in Gaelic football. Over half the team who will play against Tyrone also lined out for Donegal on the day when they shipped 1-27 from Cork in 2009: 10 minutes into the second half, it was 1-17 to 0-6. That, along with a history of indiscipline, was his starting point.

McGuinness had to jump through hoops to attain the post of manager. He had flagged his potential by leading Glenties to its first county senior championship in 2005 as player-manager. But he was overlooked when he applied for the minor position and when he first did an interview for the senior position, he turned up armed with slides and charts only to be told there was nothing on which to show them. Eventually, he was given the under-21 job and came within a penalty rapped against the crossbar of beating Dublin in the 2010 All-Ireland final. After that, he was a shoo-in for the senior post.

In his first season, McGuinness’s decision to set up the hitherto laissez-faire Donegal defence as a kind of Fort Apache, The Bronx, became the talk of the town. It befuddled the traditionalists and provoked lacerating criticism on television, which in turn drew an indignant response from within the county. But there was also unease within Donegal at the road on which McGuinness was embarking: a fear the new order, while effective, was an abandonment of the traditional style.

The more attack-minded and creative nature of their games against Cavan and Derry this summer have eased those worries. But the carefree Donegal style belongs to the past. McGuinness has never hid his influences and cites his admiration for what Kernan did in Armagh and what Mickey Harte does with Tyrone.

“I keep saying this: last year, when Jim McGuinness took over, he took over a team that was ill-disciplined and had no game plan and weren’t unified as a team should be,” Kernan says now.

“He sorted all those things out plus won Donegal’s first Ulster title in 19 years. To me, that was an unbelievable season. It might not have been the prettiest to look at. But if Colm McFadden’s goal chance had gone in against Dublin, they would have been in an All-Ireland final and who knows? But Jim got those things right and now he is fine-tuning the good players he has. If they can stay fit – and Michael Murphy in particular – they can go further. Now, they are playing with belief. They were a wee bit edgy last year and this year, they look happy in any position. I think they have become one of the top five teams in the country.”

For Brolly, they have become something beyond that.

“Donegal are better now and stronger. The self-doubt that beat them last year when they had the Dubs at their mercy has been banished, replaced by the uber-confidence that comes from knowing if they play as they have been programmed, they will not be beaten. This is Ground Zero for Gaelic football, the Bermuda triangle for the beautiful game. Tyrone will vanish into it next Saturday.”

Arresting though the image is, the point is McGuinness has presented a style that has forced people to think about the game differently. For everyone who declared the Donegal-Dublin match an abomination, there are others who found it completely fascinating because in rhythm and tactics and tension it was like nothing they had ever witnessed.

“In terms of preparation and fitness and comparing it even to last year, it is incredible what they have done,” Duffy says. “There are three ingredients for any team – team work, technical ability and tactical awareness. He has 30 guys singing off one hymn sheet, which is a hard thing to do. And tactically, he is spot on. What I get from Jim is that he played some basketball and you can see elements of that coming through in his football coaching.

“When Donegal lose the ball, rather than tackle the ball, you will see them reorganise and take up positions. I find that fascinating to watch. It is a bit like the Spanish style in the European championships. They don’t give the ball away easily and they make their opponents work really hard to get it back. It is gruelling just to try and get the ball back. It is draining mentally and physically.”

The gripe against the new Donegal methodology is it suppresses individual talent. What Duffy brought was just that: the flicker of unorthodox brilliance. He laughs when asked if he thinks there is a place for that in this team. “Well, I think there is always room for players with technical ability – and this Donegal team has plenty of those.

“Maybe the question is: the way I played then and with my level of fitness – would I have fitted into this team? Definitely not. But none of the players from 1992 would hold a candle to the current generation in terms of fitness or physique. If they trained as hard, then of course players like Martin McHugh and Tony Boyle would feature in any team. But I was 20, I would love to have the chance to play under that system.

“I think Jim’s first ambition wasn’t to please the masses, but to get the results . . . If I was a player and I was in that squad putting in hard work and the results were coming, I would be delighted.”

There are two certainties about today’s match. One is Tyrone will be “up” for it. And the other is everyone knows what Donegal are going to do. That is the peculiar thing about the Jim McGuinness era. There has been nothing of the ambush about their transition from lovable losers to the most controversial team in football.

There is a neat symmetry to Brian McEniff’s decision to add McGuinness to his panel in the winter of 1991 when the Glenties man was home from Boston for Christmas and played well in a trial game. Who knows how McGuinness’s life might have gone had he returned to the US that winter? Instead, he stayed, won an All-Ireland medal and has been kicking about Donegal dressingrooms ever since.

If he had been asked then to pick from that official 1992 panel photograph the player who would reshape Donegal, Duffy would have been hard-pressed to point a finger at the most callow of them.

He wouldn’t have guessed McGuinness would some day be a coach. “At that stage? Definitely not,” he says.

But that is how it has turned out. The Glenties man stated his intention from the beginning of last year’s championship, the first of a five-year plan. He has stuck to his guns.

How far can McGuinness and Donegal go? That remains to be seen. But everyone is watching.

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