A few days after the Ulster final, Pat Shovelin dropped into the house just for a chat. I was down in the office and he popped his head round the door and asked me what I was up to. I laughed. "If I tell you, you can't tell anyone." I was just finishing off the last couple of lines of a plan about how we were going to beat Dublin.
I wasn’t fully sure we were even going to meet them because we had a quarter-final and whatever else to play. But I knew that if we hoped to beat them, we needed to plan for it well in advance. They had owned every team they met over the summer and they appeared to be getting stronger with every game. You regularly heard the word “invincible” mentioned in radio discussions about them. It is a dangerous word, that.
There was history between Dublin and Donegal. The 2011 semi-final had been central to people forming their opinion about us. And the league match in Ballybofey when we were All-Ireland champions had had a really dark atmosphere. But we had drawn the game. That seemed to have been forgotten.
Normally, you would like to have three weeks to prepare for a team but I knew in my heart it wouldn’t be enough for Dublin. I spent all my spare hours – between working and preparing for the quarter-final – watching recordings of Dublin games. I was studying as deeply as possible. It meant that once we reached the All-Ireland semi-final and the boys began to turn their thoughts to Dublin I could say to them: I know what Dublin are about. I know what they are going to do and how they are going to do it and that’s all you need to know.
So Dublin were floating around at the back of my mind when we played Armagh in the quarter-final. It was a day that showed us just how easily planning can fall apart.
I always look for good match-ups before games and on this instance we had six defenders suited to their attackers. Paddy McGrath was assigned Kyle Carragher, Neil McGee would shadow Jamie Clarke, Eamon McGee was on Stefan Campbell and so on. But when the ball went in, Eamon stayed at full back even though Campbell went out to wing half. We ended up making quick positional shifts all through the defence, so we only had one of the match-ups we had planned for.
And it was disorienting. It took a few minutes to work out what had happened on the sideline and we could sense that it was causing confusion through the team. Nothing was quite as it should be. So we were trying to fix it as the game went on, but Armagh were constantly rotating anyway, so even as we tried to get our shape back, the puzzle changed. We were thrown.
In addition, Armagh were really well set up. Paul Grimley had assisted Kieran McGeeney for a number of years at Kildare and now, the roles reversed, back at Armagh, they were well organised. They were playing with clarity and intensity and we were in a game. We had asked Christy Toye to man-mark Aaron Kernan whenever he came forward into our half and to play as a sweeper whenever he remained in his half of the field. But Kernan was very busy and Christy ended up giving him too much attention, so we didn't have the cover we had planned. It was as if there were little fires starting all over the pitch.
To outsiders, it just looked like a good half of football – and it was that. But we were completely addled. It took us most of the half to get it fixed. The match was taking shape during all that and it narrowed into one of those unflinching Ulster derbies that can look unruly in Croke Park. There was a lot of pushing and shoving going on and at one point Kevin Moran, our doctor, was flung to the ground by an Armagh player. There was some holding and even headlocks going on off the ball.
It was like the old Armagh. They were very intimidating and they were determined. But none of us on the sideline truly felt at any moment that we were going to lose the game. It was tough stuff and it was a gripping match and when it reached the hour mark, Michael Murphy just stepped up and Patrick McBrearty kicked a couple of excellent points, which won it for us. We got there. It was a victory based on experience. The boys knew how to win these games. So we were back in a semi- final and we all felt as if we had managed to do so while flying blind. Nobody noticed. And it meant we won without revealing anything of where we were at.
So now I could take out the folder on Dublin for real. It wasn’t that I had been taking the earlier games for granted. The truth is that I was hedging my bets because of the enormity of the challenge that Dublin presented to all teams. On the bus on the way home after the Armagh game, all I said about Dublin was: “I know what they are about. I know what they are going to do and how they are going to do it and that’s all you need to know.”
We sat them down on Tuesday night and went through it all. Then we coached it. So it was an instant switch. I was talking with conviction and they knew it. Our theory was this: we are going to beat Dublin because they are going to give us a chance to. If we follow our plan to the letter, not only can we beat them – we can destroy them. And I believed that 100 per cent.
Dublin were excellent at what they did so they weren’t going to change for us. Why would they? They were 10/1 on to beat us. Their attacking game was wonderful to witness and they seemed to have options all over the field. The consensus was that they had no real weak link.
I am not sure how many hours of my life I gave to watching Stephen Cluxton taking kickouts. Match after match, restart after restart, play and rewind, night after night. I was looking for patterns. I would watch the same game several times over and write notes. Each match might take four hours to watch. And for a long time, I was concluding that Cluxton didn't have a pattern, which was spooky. I came to believe he was just ad-libbing these clairvoyant kickouts which managed to initiate Dublin attacks while simultaneously turning opposition defences.
His deliveries were always sympathetic to the runner, falling into their path, guiding them into space and never asking the receiver to break stride. The quality of his play was admirable. But eventually I saw what I felt was a consistency of habit. If you don’t push up on his kickout, then he goes short. If you do push up, he will chance the odd kick straight down the middle, but more often he will look to hit his half backs dropping back for the ball.
If you succeed in shutting that down, then he looks for Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly. And both of those players like to get up to speed before he pings it to them so that when they catch the ball, they're off. They give their marker just the slightest wee push before they move and have the power and speed to sustain it. As they move, the half back begins to move on the inside and either Flynn or Connolly will look for him and slip the little reverse pass. So now they have the ball and are carrying at speed and the defence is stretched.
Everything Dublin do revolves around not crowding their full forwards until the ball is passed inside. Once that happens, you have two and three men cutting through at good, strong angles and it becomes a nightmare for defenders because the Dublin player on the ball seems to have three or four options.
Straight away, that gives the opposition a very simple and unpromising choice: take them on or don’t take them on. I needed to know the pros and cons of both. If we didn’t take them on and conceded the short kickout and let them come on to us, it would invite a deluge of scoring chances. But stepping up would be an extremely difficult task. Studying them gave me some appreciation of the work they must do on their kickout alone. And even before we played them, I admired where they were at.
But it wasn’t as if Dublin just ignored their opposition. What they wanted was for other teams to play stupid. They worked out that if they pressed really aggressively on opposition defences and around the middle of the field, they could dictate the terms on which other teams attacked. Their big advantage was that their full back line is very physically strong and fast. So they programmed their forwards to hustle and harry like crazy and their half backs to push up. Just getting the ball out to the halfway line became an ordeal for teams. And this is where the Dublin management and team gambled on human nature.
Think of it: you’re in Croke Park, in that sea of noise, and you are on a team that has been harassed again and again just to bring the ball out to centre field. You look up and you see that they have left their full back line open, just three backs marking your three forwards – or two if you are playing two up front. And you see all this space in front of you and you reason that if you give it in, your forward has a good chance of winning it.
And that is the illusion Dublin presented all summer. They had their full backs playing two and three metres in front of their men on whatever side the ball happened to be on. And they were expecting these long, hopeful passes in; everything Dublin did invited them. So they inevitably won the race for the ball. And it looks great: Dublin defenders storming out and cleaning up and the Hill crowd cheers and all of a sudden the pressure is back on the other team. Another attack has broken down and Dublin are full of movement and running and you are reeling.
It is demoralising. It is only a matter of time before somebody cracks and before a goal goes in and then the entire stadium is rocking. So our big question was: Do we give them their kickout or do we take them on? And we decided to take them on.
We did so much work on practising against their kick-outs. As it turned out, we only won three of 23 , but we got 1-1 from those possessions. We decided that our full forwards would mark their men. Our half forwards were also to mark – but they were to stay on the outside of the Dublin half backs so they could block out the little chip to the wing from Cluxton. It was the same with the midfielders: we needed to mark tight but stay on the outside of their midfielders. Frank McGlynn was detailed to mark Diarmuid Connolly. We put Anthony Thompson on Paul Flynn.
The trick for us, when we got inside the attacking half, was to not kick the ball directly towards our forwards. Instead, we would keep the pass away from the Dublin defenders. So when we were attacking, we weren’t looking for the Donegal jersey; we were looking for the sky blue shirts of Dublin so we could play a pass 15 to 20 metres left or right of that jersey.
Then we worked on it: bombing through the ball from the half way line and a "Dublin" full back marking our forwards. We practised kicking it around the corner to force defenders to turn and adjust so that Michael Murphy or Paddy McBrearty or Colm McFadden, or whoever was inside, would be facing the goal when they got possession. It was up to our forwards to read the pass and because the Dublin defenders were no longer certain where the ball was going, it became a more even battle for possession.
We also spent hours and hours working at getting the ball out while under pressure and avoiding contact in the first and middle third. We put a big defensive press on them and got them to work the ball through it. Our hope was that breaking down what Dublin did into segments would make it all clearer.
Then we worked on our kickout. We absolutely knew that they would go man-to-man on us when we were restarting because they had destroyed Monaghan in the quarter-final on that alone. They had scored 2-8 off Monaghan's kickout. So we began working on this drill where we would pull everyone into our own half and alternate between Michael and Neil Gallagher as the target man for our delivery.
Paul Durcan has an incredible repertoire of pinpoint kick-outs that he has worked exceptionally hard to perfect. The boys had total confidence in him. So as Paul kicked, our half forwards were sprinting towards our half. But once we hit the 45-metre line, Ryan McHugh would slam on the brakes, turn and run the other way. It gave him two or three metres on his man and that is all Ryan needs. He is lightning quick and he is the smoothest ball carrier you could ask for. So we told Neil and Michael not to even bother trying to catch it; to just flick it into the path of our runners.
Then we had a situation where we could carry the ball straight at their full back line and give the ball when and where our forwards wanted. It should create overlaps for us. We got two goals in the second half from that alone. If we found ourselves in a situation where we were attacking and Dublin’s defence was established, we imposed a condition on ourselves that none of our offensive players was allowed inside their 21-metre line unless the killer pass was on.
We played these little games of 10 versus 10 inside a half just to get used to keeping the ball out of contact in congested space. We got our second goal from that: Anthony made a strong run towards the Dublin goal in front of the Hill and Ryan timed his run so that the pass was definitely on. We planned to double up on their full forwards because we respected them so much.
The final and most important thing we worked on was this idea that we called "anticipating the anticipator". The more you watch Dublin, the more you see that it is not the guy on the ball you have to worry about as much as the guys coming through. You could see it again and again: a midfielder wins the ball and plays it to Alan Brogan. Once he takes possession, he has a runner coming through alongside him. Sometimes, when they are at their best, they have three men coming through. It is close to impossible to mark that – and they know it. So you have to be diligent and track those runs, time after time. The trouble is, it is not the same players making those runs. The entire Dublin team is capable of doing it.
We spent five days in Johnstown House at a camp and watched so much film that we came to know their patterns off by heart. We could talk through the move: ball is won, James McCarthy takes it at speed, lays it off, and the ball goes inside to Bernard Brogan. Nobody is watching McCarthy, who continues his run at three-quarter pace and then bombs through once he sees that Brogan has clocked him. Another slip pass. Point. By the time we left the camp, we were confident we knew their game well.
We used the final week to burn the gameplan into their minds. By the end, they were sick of listening to me. They were finishing my sentences for me and cutting across me. They knew it. They had it off. They were getting cranky at hearing the same thing over and over. That made me feel good because then I knew we were prepared.
At our last meeting, I wrote Donegal 3-16 Dublin 0-12 on the blackboard. That was the final score we were banking on. It actually ended 3-14 to 0-17. It wasn’t too far off the mark because Dublin did kick unbelievable points in the first five minutes of the game. That was no surprise either. We had identified that danger before the game. We figured that if we do this, this and this, then the only option available to them will be long-range points. So on the basis of that, our last tactical decision was to set our defensive line outside our 50 by about five to seven metres. But we played too deep for the first five minutes. I think it was because of the start that Dublin made and the power and the crowd and noise. We were blown away initially and dropped into a siege mentality for a bit.
We were as vulnerable then as any other team they had played. If you don’t deconstruct Dublin in your mind before you take the field against them, you are entering a different world. It doesn’t matter how good a footballer you are; you cannot cope. And we were just about coping in the first few minutes. It was a barrage and it was relentless. Dublin got their goal chance and Papa [Durcan] made a brilliant save. If that had gone in, it would have been very difficult for us. And we went 0-09 to 0-04 down.
Standing on the sideline, we were so disappointed. We felt that there was a possibility that we could implode here. Maybe this is a bridge too far. And if that happened, so be it. That's the game. That is why we play. The big screen happened to show Jim Gavin, Declan Darcy and the rest of his backroom team sitting in the stand together and laughing about something. It was probably unfortunate timing for them, but we noticed it on the sideline. They had just moved into a five-point lead, 0-09 to 0-04, with not even 20 minutes on the clock. So you stand there expressionless and you have these little debates. If they keep up this rate of scoring, they're on to break 30 points. And you scan your team and you see men with real substance. We had some very tough characters out there, guys who had persevered through dark seasons and hateful losses and had come through all that.
The incremental pressure that Dublin apply is incredible to stand so close to. But the minutes went by and we could see that the boys were beginning to turn small things. Dublin’s scoring rate slowed and we were starting to play through their press and then it became about a series of little things. Can we force them to do this? Can we just get that pass down to Colm?
One or two little things from the training field began to work for us and we became emboldened. Odhrán Mac Niallais floated this lovely point to make it 0-09 to 0-06 and that was the first time I felt a real jolt inside: this is on. Other things were happening. Dublin claimed a ball at midfield but Christy chased down Michael Darragh MacAuley and made a brilliant steal. The McGee brothers were getting out in front of Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara and we were starting to dominate that sector. Then Michael won this long ball that only Michael could win and slipped a ball to Colm and there was Ryan coming through, all alone. We had our goal.
Paul asked me what I wanted from the second half. I told him that I wanted to see Jim Gavin out of that fucking seat in the Hogan Stand and down on the sideline giving his substitutes a rub on the back when he was sending them in.
When we played St Eunan’s in 2005 our boys had us backed. Now our boys had us backed to beat Dublin. We were available at 10/1. They had a few hundred euros on themselves. And we knew leaving the hotel that we were going to win. It was one of those rare days when everything you talk about and plan for and work on happens. I remember seeing Neil Gallagher watching Ryan and moving to his left before reaching for the ball and setting him in motion. Neil had become a vital figure in our gameplan. He was a leader and a towering old-fashioned midfielder with a deep game intelligence. Neil reads a game so well. So much flowed through him and he was the conduit for the attacks we created in the second half.
In some ways, it was unreal to watch because Dublin are a phenomenal football team. Their goalkeeper is probably the best in the history of the game. Their half forward line is the best I’ve ever seen. The only glitch in their system was the one we took them down on. So as unbelievable as it was, it also felt inevitable. It had to happen. And once the Dublin players lost their sense of certainty, they became as fallible and vulnerable as any other team.
Sometimes you can play in front of 80,000 people and it can feel no different from Ballybofey. The only time I was aware of the atmosphere was close to the end. We could see all the Donegal supporters beginning to wave and make noise. We couldn’t figure what was going on and then we spotted it. They were waving goodbye to the Dublin fans leaving the Hill.
Somebody showed me a photograph of Michael Murphy on the field in Croke Park after Donegal had beaten Meath in the 2002 All-Ireland championship. He was looking straight up at Brendan Devenney. He wasn't quite 12-years-old and he had this shine in his eyes. You could see in the light of them how much he wanted all this.
When I started out with Donegal, I had no relationship with Michael. I’m not sure how many hours we spent over the four years on the phone and sitting down talking. He is unlike anyone I have ever come across in terms of his focus. A standard rule in psychology is that focus is a connection between two things. And Michael has this fierce connection between his day-to-day life and his football life. When we started out, I got the impression that he was watching and evaluating and working out what he felt was going to happen.
Once he was happy that there was substance behind the talk, he just went through the roof. He led. This is a guy who has played senior county football since the age of seventeen and has carried this constant expectation on his shoulders since then. He wears it lightly. Our group often feel as if we have the best footballer in the country in Michael and yet he is the one driving himself to the edge at training. He trains with ferocity. He is acutely aware of his position and responsibility. He gives a 100 per cent in every tackle drill and training session. And he may well be the best footballer in the country yet he is driving himself harder than anyone in the group.
This is an edited extract from Until Victory Always by Jim McGuinness, published by Gill & Macmillan on Friday, October 30th, priced at €24.99/£21.99