Jim McGuinness still keeping his cards close to his chest

Donegal supremo and his squad have been working on system to counteract Dublin’s strengths

Maybe 2011 still matters. Jim McGuinness seems to be employing the same philosophy; the attempted shaping of a sport that leaves itself open to manipulation.

McGuinness's Donegal came very close to killing the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final stone dead. The Ulster champions clawed themselves into a 0-6 to 0-3 lead before clamping down their jaws and refusing to budge.

It made the 2003 All-Ireland final between Armagh and Tyrone seem adventurous.

Everything was going according to the stingiest game plan Croke Park has witnessed in modern times. That is until Stephen Cluxton, Bryan Cullen and Bernard Brogan intervened as Dublin eventually escaped the attempted suffocation with an eight-point total. Just 0-2 came from open play.


This near deconstruction of Gaelic football was heavily criticised but a year later Donegal bloomed, ending a 20-year wait for Sam Maguire, and McGuinness was lauded a master tactician and sports psychologist extraordinaire. Glasgow Celtic came calling for his services.

The aesthetics

“In 2011 people talked about the aesthetics and so on but we were trying to win a football match, that’s the bottom line,” said McGuinness. “When that is your start point everything else goes out the window.”

Dublin centre forward Barry Cahill remembers the throw-in like no other.

“One way to combat a blanket defence is to move the ball as quickly as possible, usually by foot, 40 to 50 yard kick passes up the pitch,” said Cahill.

"When Maurice Deegan threw up the ball Mark McHugh and Ryan Bradley [both since gone from the scene for different reasons], their two wing forwards, sprinted past me and just sat in front of our full forward line.

“Two, three seconds into the game, they had two players situated in front of Bernard Brogan in the pocket, in the space, so our plan was gone straight away because their defensive system was set up.”

Something similar is expected on Sunday. Donegal are highly unlikely to trade blows with Jim Gavin’s Dublin. Their best chance of progressing seems to be an advanced version of rope-a-dope. Make Dublin shoot themselves into exhaustion.

“The one thing that Dublin have added is the number of shots they are getting off 45, 46, 47 consistently,” said McGuinness. “They are relentless in terms of their approach and they ask a wild lot of questions. We know that they are very fit, strong, well organised and they have got their system well down the track in terms of their development.

Much improvement

“I don’t see much more improvement in their system or movement in their system from here on in. They are probably 85 or 90 per cent where they want to be because it is so fluid you can see the patterns and you can see what they are doing and their support play.

“It’s really impressive. They are very far down the track in terms of development. They have a great age profile and they are hungry for it so it’s a big challenge.”

Cluxton is everything to Dublin, according to McGuinness.

“I don’t think there is anybody to touch Stephen Cluxton . . . .Dublin look for between 70-85 percent retention of their kick outs and that’s unheard of in Gaelic football.”

Much of the McGuinness way will be defensive but the majority of his approach is in the mind. Like any elite coach that survives, he seeks to empower players.

“We have to get ourselves right. We have been working on things since earlier in the year and trying to get things right and develop a system that hopefully make us a better team and more efficient.

“We can’t just disregard them now just because we’re playing Dublin. It wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t be good for the players because psychologically it would throw them.

“They have been fantastic. Give them information and they will try and deliver it to the best of their ability. Some of it is only a loose framework which means that they have to make their own decisions within it.

“The point we scored the last day to win the match [against Armagh] there is no coaching involved there. That’s decision -making. You have got to give people that flexibility and we are very fortunate to have the group of players we have.”

The McGuinness era in Donegal is already the greatest in the county’s proud football history; three of last four Ulster titles and an All-Ireland title won.

What makes them so special in a provincial context is their ability to rise from last year's defeat to Monaghan and regain the Anglo-Celt Cup.

Now comes the most evolved team in the all the land; a team attempting the opposite of their approach. Both are closing in on greatness.

Game plan

“We’ll need to be on our toes from the first minute against Dublin. We’ll need to implement our own game plan from the very first minute.”

What has he in store this time? How ugly can this get? Where will Michael Murphy roam?

“It’s one thing to talk abut philosophy, it’s another thing to talk about how you are going to win the match. When you set out to analyse it and study it you have got to make decisions. I’m not lying to you now because those decisions haven’t been made.” They have by now.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent