On Sunday evening, we played Shanghai. Arriving in the city was a mind-blowing experience. I’m still trying to get my head around the population here and the scale on which everything works.
Thirty million people live in the city. I sent a text to Pat Shovelin, my cousin and Donegal's former goalkeeping coach, saying it's too bad that we couldn't get a football team out of that.
My brief was to work on our set plays for the game and also to study what Gus Poyet was doing with Shanghai. So I spent a good part of last week doing game analysis in the evening. It's the same thing as in Gaelic football; you keep on looking until you see the patterns.
There is a saying in football: bad players switch off on set plays and good players switch on. You can see that with Tevez.
Shanghai have several good domestic players but their three foreign players are all highly dangerous. Most Premier League watchers know all about Carlos Tevez. They also have Giovanni Moreno, a Colombian striker who is 6ft3in and very good technically and Obafami Martins, a speed merchant who played with Inter and Newcastle.
When you watch Tevez, you appreciate his speed of thought is exceptional. That’s what often gives him an edge. There is a saying in football: bad players switch off on set plays and good players switch on. You can see that with Tevez. He becomes predatory in those lull moments when the play– a free or a corner – is being set up. He is always looking to see who or what he can exploit.
It came to light that Shanghai had a really interesting offensive mix and that those three players connected with each other all the time. When one had the ball, you had to be very conscious of the other two because they have developed a heightened understanding.
So on Sunday evening, I sat on the bench watching the game and the same scenarios and patterns that I had seen them work on film unfolded before me. And it’s exciting to see that. We won the game and, on the flight home, I started thinking about the various aspects that go into the composition of a team – in any sport.
Basically what happened on Sunday night was a football game that brought together two distinct visions and philosophies of how two men – Gus Poyet and Roger Schmidt – felt they could best win.
Roger’s game is based on a very aggressive and thorough pressing style. Beijing have a very tall back four. That is not an accident because if you press as Beijing do, the only option for the opposition is to kick the ball long at you. There is a reason why you choose certain players.
There is a reason I had Karl Lacey at number six when I got the Donegal job. You need quality and composure in that situation. We are lucky to have three really high quality central midfielders in Renato, Augusto and Ralf. So you have this mix.
For me, the big question wasn't could they do it? It was: do they want to do it?
And on Sunday night you had two different managers with distinct visions and philosophies to try to win the game.
With Donegal, even before I knew which players would do which jobs, I had a sense that we needed to make a big pronounced shift away from the ‘lovely Donegal’ tag. Really nice pure footballers. I felt the county team needed more bite. We needed to be bigger and stronger. I wanted pace but I wanted power and physical strength too.
When I went out scouting club matches looking for players I was looking for guys that fit into this game plan. For me, the big question wasn't could they do it? It was: do they want to do it? And I remember watching a county game and David Walsh was playing. Donegal were being well beaten but David was still running himself into the ground. He wanted to. And straight away you knew you could trust him and that he wanted to run.
I feel that all county managers are trying to strike a balance between hard skills – power, pace, strength, agility, aerobic capacity – and the soft skills of two foot kicking, passing, heads-up play and score-taking. But these soft skills are developed over 15 years starting when the player is eight years old or younger.
There is more of an opportunity to create a force based on hard skills. There were these two guys from Glenties known as The Twins. Jimmy and John. I often met them when they were well into their 80s and they were football mad. No matter who you’d be playing they had one question. The question was: “How’s it goin’ Jim, are they big, Jim? Are they big? Are they big, boss?” And the message was: if they were big, we were in trouble.
The teams capable of winning the All-Ireland are almost always those with the best combination of hard and soft skillsets. Some managers are more fortunate than others because they get a generation of players who are really well developed. I am not just talking about Dublin: I mean Cork and Galway too; counties with a big population base. Having a city-based football culture is a brilliant start.
So look at the All-Ireland series. Kevin McStay has done a brilliant job and is probably getting as much as he can from his group of players. Kevin Walsh continues to develop his Galway team. Éamonn Fitzmaurice has a terrific combination of both and is implementing a vision of playing that he feels gives Kerry a chance to beat Dublin.
It will take a really bold and unexpected switch in approach and philosophy from one of the managers whose team is still there
If you look at Donegal, they have probably gone too far on the pace side of things. Pace is an incredible asset and they have that in abundance. But you have to be mindful of the physical attributes of the team also. And they were probably exposed in that regard on Saturday night against Galway.
So the real quality is going to start emerging now and possibly the gaps between those teams competing for the All-Ireland and the rest will become glaring when the games are played next weekend.
It is a bit like the Probables (Dublin, Kerry) versus the Possibles (The Rest). So the question is: how can the Possibles knock the Probables out of the contest? For me, there is only one way forward. I feel those teams need to be creative in their approach. It will take a really bold and unexpected switch in approach and philosophy from one of the managers whose team is still there.
This is the sword Mayo have fallen on in the last number of years. There was nothing new in what they did on Saturday. The limitless courage and willingness was there in abundance and so too were the glaring defensive collapses. When it comes to moral courage alone, Mayo won’t be beaten.
The problem is that they encounter teams of similar moral character and with a slightly superior set of soft skills from now through to the end. So can they win the All-Ireland adhering to the status quo? By the status quo I mean continuing to be the same Mayo that everyone knows and loves? Or do they need to produce something nobody is expecting?
We all have an idea of how Dublin and Kerry will play from here on in. That’s fine for them; it gets them results. We also have a fair idea that Tyrone won’t deviate from a game plan that has served them very well this summer.
The other teams are all roughly in the same place. There is a reason why Dublin and then Kerry are favourites to be in the All-Ireland. It’s because everyone is expecting the games to follow a certain narrative.
The Possibles have a clear choice. They can persevere with exactly what they have done. But if that is the road you are going down, then the chances are you are going to get beaten anyway. Why play it safe and lose by three or six? Why not shoot for the incredible?
It only takes one team to do it. And the ramifications have an impact on all the other counties. You can go anywhere. There is no set of rules on how to coach Gaelic football or any other sport. You can double and treble up or go totally zonal or press high.
But we all seem to be tied to certain patterns of thinking and doing. What I’m suggesting doesn’t have to be this radical new tactic. It just has to be something that the other team isn’t expecting and catches them cold. That’s what enabled us to beat Dublin in 2014. As a group we were convinced that we were going to win that game in the week coming up to it because we knew what we had planned for was different while Dublin were going to stay the same.
Still, there was no guarantee that we would beat them that day. Nobody believed we would. Except ourselves. But it depended on the players executing the plan with absolute conviction.
Maybe the way forward is to stand back and question what you are doing and what everyone else is doing
And it is vital that all the Possibles bring that iron-clad mindset to whatever approach they take. I think Down, Armagh and Monaghan are counties with the bottle to maybe try a new route. What have they got to lose?
So all of this was swirling around in my head when I got back to Beijing on Monday and watched the two football qualifiers. You had four managers doing their best to implement a vision and a way forward. Two won and two lost. If I’m being honest, though, I can’t remember the last time I saw a Gaelic football team coming out and trying something – anything – that made people sit up and say: ‘God, I wasn’t expecting that’.
Everyone is looking for the mix and the philosophy. Maybe the way forward is to stand back and question what you are doing and what everyone else is doing. And then be honest. What are the chances of what we are doing actually giving us a chance to beat the Probables? Is there anything else out there that can get us over the line?
That kind of thinking, I believe, might just get you there. See, the best individual players needn’t always be on the winning team. They can be caught.
But you have to back yourself as a manager and then you have to convince your team that this is the way to go. That requires a step into the unknown. It’s like a cliff jump into the water. You know you will be okay but you still have to commit to taking that last step and falling through the air. Unless someone is willing to make that jump, the All-Ireland will hold no real surprises.