Cork will need to have their homework done this time

 

THE MIDDLE THIRD:You require a new game plan when you come face to face with Donegal – the Rebels will have to bring something different from their own natural game to Croke Park

CORK AGAINST Donegal this Sunday is one of those games you nearly have to get the slide rule and calculator out for. The game plan each side brings to it will be fascinating to watch, with both managers second-guessing each other right up to throw-in. People will say you know what you’re going to get from Donegal but that’s only true up to a point. They don’t play the same way in every game – they don’t even play the same way from one half to the next. Jim McGuinness is like a mobster on the run – he never takes the same road home two nights in a row.

Cork are favourites but no way are they unbeatable. Defensively, they’re actually weak enough. Outside of Eoin Cadogan and Michael Shields, their defenders haven’t had great championships so far. Okay, Graham Canty has found some of his old form but Paudie Kissane and Noel O’Leary have both struggled at times when it’s been put up to them.

That’s not an encouraging sign for Cork because those two guys are going to have to play key roles on Sunday. Positions are going to mean nothing so it won’t just be a matter of those two lads being able to lock down their patch of the field. They will probably have to cover a lot more ground than they’re used to and they might find themselves in some alien positions.

There’s a decent chance they will both have to shoot for goal at times as well and when that time comes, they need to nail their shots. Donegal don’t leave you much room for missing.

This is all assuming Cork accept they can’t just go out and play their own game and decide that it will be good enough to win. Even the best teams won’t get away with doing that against Donegal. You have to have a plan for how you’re going to play them and if you decide to be all macho about it and think that you’ll get away with just playing your own natural game, they will rub their hands. Whatever way they set up, the idea is always to disrupt the other team’s natural game. So it stands to reason that you should come to the table with something different, something they haven’t seen.

I heard people say after the Kerry game that Kerry should have been kicking long ball into the full-forward line and that would have been the way to beat Donegal. But that’s exactly what they want you to do. They want you to try hitting a 50-yard punt into a forest of players so that they can break the ball and attack as a unit. You have to respect the effectiveness of what they do. If you don’t, they’ll grind you down.

The way to play them is to swallow your pride and accept that it’s going to turn into something like a basketball game. If that means sending a defender to follow Mark McHugh all over the pitch and leave space at the back, so be it.

And if it means that Kissane or O’Leary find themselves in a position to shoot for a point, they can’t be looking around for the next man to pass the ball to. Everybody has to be prepared to score because you can be damn sure that every one of the Donegal players is mad to get on the scoreboard regardless of the numbers on their back.

McGuinness prepares his teams for every game and treats every opponent differently. As a result, there’s a lot of nuance to the way Donegal play from game to game. People think they just go out and park the bus but it’s not true. Against Kerry, they actually lined up in quite an orthodox way from the start.

It will be interesting to see if they do the same on Sunday. Kerry were able to score a few early points against them because Kerry’s build-up play was crisp and quick. Cork’s build-up play has been slow and deliberate at times this year so they might not be able to take advantage in the same way. They have the best forward line left in the championship but if they are continually taking the extra pass and the extra solo, they will get swallowed up.

To play Donegal, you have to ask yourself what it is that they won’t want to be faced with. That’s the key to beating any team. Think about what they’re planning, think about what they’re hoping you don’t do and then go and do it.

Teams have tried different tactics against Donegal but eventually, they all come back to what they know best. They try to play their natural game and they get frustrated doing it.

But I think if a team came at Donegal like they themselves come at other teams, they wouldn’t like it very much.

One of the keys to Donegal’s game is how supremely fit they are. It allows them to break as a unit and to funnel back as a unit. It has definitely been the case that some of the teams they’ve blitzed over the past two years haven’t been able to match them for fitness but they won’t find that on Sunday. Cork are fit and strong and big and if any team can pose Donegal the kind of problems they like to pose themselves, Cork can.

Something Cork should definitely do is identify before the game one of their forwards whose sole job is to move himself around and get in position to shoot for a point. A designated kicker in a way. Make it a player like Fintan Goold, someone who might not be the first name you think of when it comes to racking up points.

We know Donegal are going to bottle them up, we know they are going to strangle some attacks and force Cork to handpass laterally at times. We know as well that the one thing Donegal really emphasise is not giving away goals.

They will target the inside forward line and the likes of Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill will not be allowed to get in for goal chances. There will just be too many bodies in there.

So be it Goold or whoever else, it should be somebody’s job to come and take the ball 40 yards out and turn and shoot. If he gets the first two or three, Donegal have to start thinking and coming up with another plan. Now all of a sudden they are reacting to Cork rather than Cork reacting to them. No team has made them do that so far this year.

The other thing Cork need to work out for themselves is how the referee is going to play the day. If he’s letting things go from early on, it could work in Donegal’s favour.

But if he’s fussy and he’s giving plenty of frees, I think it will suit Cork. Kerry suffered when Bryan Sheehan went off because now Donegal knew they could cut loose and the frees wouldn’t necessarily be scored. But Cork have Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill to kick frees from right and left and Aidan Walsh to kick them from distance. In a tight game, the referee’s humour when it comes to frees could be crucial.

Funny enough, so could the weather. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a wet day will give Donegal a 30 per cent better chance of winning the game. To me, it’s a no-brainer. The Croke Park pitch is a completely different animal with a bit of rain on it. It can be like playing on bathroom tiles and even if you never slip on it, you’ll always have it your head that you might.

To someone sitting in the stand, the players look perfectly balanced just as long as they don’t fall on their backside. But on a wet day, you’re constantly having to make allowances for slippages underfoot that can’t be seen in the stand. Just about everything you do calls for an extra step to steady yourself.

Against most teams, that won’t matter very much. But against Donegal, it’s a massive factor. Their whole game is based around you taking that extra step and them getting in at you while you’re doing it. They are so good at tackling that any extra split second you take to make sure of your footing will be seized upon. Even if the first man in doesn’t get the ball, he will slow you down enough to set you up for the second man. Together, they will get a hand on the ball or on your arm or across your eyeline and it will cause a spillage.

This is the big issue for Cork to confront going into this game. Have they got the head for the kind of battle they’re going to get on Sunday? Cork like to win games big. It suits them to be able to empty the bench with 15 minutes to go and them seven or eight points up. It means they don’t have to concentrate for a full game, they can take the foot off the gas and ease themselves through.

But if they have to get down and dirty for 70 minutes of a game that never has more than one or two points in it all the way through, we can’t be sure yet how they’ll handle it. They could get ratty, they could get flustered, they could start kicking bad wides like Kerry did in the quarter-final. We don’t know yet because Cork haven’t had it put up to them yet in the way Donegal will put it up to them on Sunday.

As for Donegal, the big question surrounding them is how they will react if they are behind and they have to chase a game. If they’re three points down with 20 minutes to go, whereabouts on the pitch will Mark McHugh be playing? Will he still be mopping up breaking ball in front of his full-back line or will he be getting forward trying to work scores?

We’ve seen enough from McGuinness at this stage to know he must have some sort of plan for what to do if they need to chase the game and we’ve also seen that his players are well enough drilled to be able to change formations on the hoof in the middle of a game. It will be interesting to see how they react if and when they have to.

Picking a winner here is close to impossible. If it’s a dry day, I would take Cork to win – as long as they have taken stock of what Donegal can offer and come up with a plan to counteract it. But if they just come to play their own game or if it’s a wet day with a greasy ball, I’d give Donegal every chance.

Donegal are swots. They do their homework and they do it diligently. There are certain teams that feel they don’t have to study for the big exams but they are definitely not one of them. Cork better hope they aren’t either.

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