Derry are the story of the All-Ireland championship and are now arriving at their critical hour. Monday morning’s qualifying draw really sharpened the sense that the best part of the All-Ireland football championship is upon us.
The first month or so of games have felt both rushed and disconnected. There has been no flow or real storyline to the competition. But now we have reached the provincial finals with a series of riveting qualifier games to come over the June bank holiday. After that, we will have a clearer picture of who is who.
I was chatting with a few football people over the weekend and the subject of contenders came up. And we spoke about Kerry and Dublin with the others providing a few interesting questions. Funnily, Derry never came up.
Why is that? They have pulled off the big win of this season by beating Tyrone. They are back in an Ulster final. And they have made it this far while hiding their light under a bushel. They are a slow-burning project in swift, consistent improvement under Rory Gallagher. I think the Derry revival started the moment they appointed the Belleek man and they haven't looked back.
To climb from Division Four and march through a tough Ulster theatre is some going. And to take the next step, Derry must now go through their bitterest rivals
If you go through their selections for the last few years, there is a core of 10 players who have been there all the time. So it becomes clear they will know the patterns – from a coach who is very pattern-oriented. They have lost Ciaran McFaul this season, which is a pity for them: he's a fine player. But if Niall Loughlin makes it back, they will return to full strength for an Ulster showdown against Donegal which feels like a defining game for both counties.
Last year, I would have had Derry as a threat, but no more. They walked Division Three north, as it was then. But the big moment was the Donegal-Derry game in Ballybofey. That day was surreal. Very sunny and no crowd and a gripping, deadlocked, breathless game. In an odd way, the silence added to it. I looked back at my notes and I felt that day, for a few minutes, that Derry would steal it. As we both listened to and watched the game, we quickly understood that the Derry players were hugely vocal amongst themselves in terms of covering space.
And then if you paid attention to Gallagher, he never stopped coaching the game. It was like hearing and watching a basketball coach. He was correcting players’ positioning in real time. The energy was extraordinary. They were felled by a killer score by Patrick McBrearty but there was nothing between the teams. They learned that much in their disappointment.
And they had the bad luck that there was no qualifying system – because of the curtailed pandemic structure. I felt that they were primed to make hay.
So that was the first real sign that they had arrived. To climb from Division Four and march through a tough Ulster theatre is some going. And to take the next step, Derry must now go through their bitterest rivals.
Did Rory Gallagher win the All-Ireland with Donegal under Jim McGuinness or with him? It’s an interesting question. I won’t say it was a 50-50 split. But Jim gave Rory a lot of latitude and he was a very visible coach during that period for Donegal. The strange thing was that he couldn’t replicate that Ulster success when he took over as manager. But this is his project and he has a very clear vision for Derry.
What is their template? It is fairly simple. He has handed very defined, curated roles to certain players. He has made Derry extremely difficult to score against. He wants them to hit about 0-20 in total scoring. How do they do this? Well, through lightning transition. But they do require goals. They are only hitting about 0-14 or so from points. They are not a very fluid point-taking team. They are superbly conditioned and quite athletic. And very little is left to chance in terms of their game plan. They have had absolute wallopers of games to reach this point – beating Tyrone and Monaghan in one summer is some going.
Now, they are not the finished article. Why didn’t they get promoted from Division Two this year? It was their first setback. Against Roscommon, they didn’t score enough goals. And against Galway, they conceded four. So those are the obvious vulnerabilities. When the system breaks down, they will struggle.
They have lost the element of surprise, too. Everyone knows they are vulnerable to the kick out. That is their most blatant weakness. The game becomes more tactical every single season. Skill and conditioning and athleticism are all but automatic now. Few teams get caught out in those facets. So it often boils down to the quality of the tactical plan a management team maps out. And match-ups are critical. The SWOT analysis – Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats – is a standard in all dressing rooms now.
And so much attention is focused on the role of the goalkeeper.
We had a workshop at a local club recently. The goalkeeping coach Gary Matthews led the day and his talk was revelatory. He was asked about the establishment of Dublin's plan around Stephen Cluxton. And it became obvious that there was no Cluxton plan. Yes, there were targets presented in the half-second before his kick out. But Cluxton wouldn't know which one he would pick until the last moment.
So if the executioner doesn’t know, then the opposition can’t know. And then they don’t know what they are countering. Stephen was caught once or twice during Dublin’s ascendancy period. But his skill to make that very late, very clear decision was without parallel. That is the difference between Cluxton and many of the other top goalkeepers we are seeing this year.
And the kick-out is now the critical metric in deciding the majority of Gaelic football games. Most teams have about 18 scores and six wides per match. Therefore, you are looking at about 50 restarts. That makes for a lot of opportunities for teams to build a game plan around that basic premise. If you look at the statistics sheets any manager gets at half-time, you immediately see the emphasis on the kick out.
How many did we win? Were they long? Short? Are we winning the break? Where on the field is this happening? You are looking for the summary to give you a clear picture. And more and more, managers are looking for a table called Source of Scores. There are four areas which tend to dictate the source of scores. Your kick out. The opposition kick out. Turnovers. And throw-ins.
This is where Rory Gallagher comes in. Does anybody in Ireland know more about the Donegal players? I doubt it
Here’s an example. I was at the Connacht U-17 championship at the weekend. It was Roscommon and Sligo. Ros’ decided to give up the Sligo kick out. They dropped an extra man down field and Sligo restarted short to their number four and off he trotted. We reckoned this source provided 1-8 of the Sligo total and four added Roscommon errors from their own kick out made it 1-12 Sligo accrued through kick outs. They hit 1-16. And they won the game. And that short restart was the key element of the contest. And on a different scale, Tyrone did the same thing to Derry. Why? And can Derry rely on the same thing happening in Clones?
When you look at this Sunday’s intriguing final, you know that the respective management teams will be studying their kick out charts like they are taking their Bar exams. And this is why I put Donegal down as slight favourites. I cannot see any scenario where Donegal will offer that short outlet – unless they are coasting with a few minutes to go. They will force Derry to compete for their kick-out all afternoon. And I reckon that the Derry kick-out is not far past the embryonic stage.
If they don't get the game restarted short, then they are forced to go long and then they are likely to struggle. Now, Conor Glass does his bit around that sector and Emmet Bradley, if back, will be a big addition. But Donegal have planted a lot of redwoods around that congested midfield sector. They have a lot of height and physicality in that area and they can break teams.
This is where Rory Gallagher comes in. Does anybody in Ireland know more about the Donegal players? I doubt it. When he sits down with his management, they will brainstorm and wargame every single scenario and possibility. They need to face some stark questions around their kick-out. Do we have a goalkeeper who can deliver the ball to where he wants all the time? Probably not. How does he fare on his weak side? Who are his targets if he has to go long?
And I think Rory will be bold on this. He will come up with ways around the obvious temptation to kick long and hope for the best. One of the best solutions is the chipped kick-out to the middle of D, directly in front of the goalkeeper to a receiver running towards him.
It is fraught with danger because it is such a high precision kick and the receiver has his back to the field of play. If you are dispossessed, you are out of the game. So the instruction will be to secure the ball and lay it back to the goalkeeper or a free corner back on your first touch, all the time. It is dangerous but they are going to have to take some risks to break that Donegal press.
I think both teams will also try to launch that long kick-out that goes to midfield and beyond where they might get an overload. That stuff is practised and practised on the training ground. What it all points to is a very stressful day for defenders and goalkeepers. The team that wins the kick-out battle will win the day. And if one kick-out goes astray, the goalkeeper will probably be picking it out of the net.
If the reader agrees that Derry are slightly behind Donegal, then they split the pack beautifully when it comes to match-ups. I think this is where Gallagher is brilliant. Michael Murphy is a marvel but is a year older now. He will have Brendan Rogers for company. Patrick McBrearty will have Chrissy McKeigue welded to him. Then what? If you tie down Jamie Brennan, Michael Langan, Eoin Ban Gallagher and Ryan McHugh, then the scales tip back towards Derry. Gallagher knows those lads inside out. And he has had these match-ups in his mind for 12 months.
So I believe this could be one of the most tactical games of the modern era. I would invite people to embrace it. This is a different game under different parameters. It will be hugely tense. Donegal have become quite a deliberate tactical team. And I have argued that they should loosen it up – but they won’t get a chance to explore that option this weekend.
This is a moment when Donegal either have to produce or walk away and start again. I have a hunch they will edge this. But Derry, a county with a huge football tradition, are on the threshold of a first Ulster title since 1998 and they will believe. It is hard to believe that they have won the Anglo-Celt just once since their magical year of 1993. They will be daring to dream around Sperrin country now. It is going to be a true occasion.
Get there early.