Jim McGuinness: Fine details are key as real business starts

Pace, aggression and tactical acumen a common theme for Dubs, Kerry and Donegal

This was the most significant weekend of the championship so far. The bigger teams all made their move and it was interesting to see the impact of top-level coaching and the unfolding game plans.

Of the three provincial finals, obviously the one closest to my heart was in Ulster. Donegal haven't won the title since 2014 and Sunday was a unique pairing.

It was clear that Michael Murphy would get special attention and Ryan McHugh and Frank McGlynn would also be marked man to man. The rest of the Fermanagh players were dropping into deeper positions to make life as difficult as possible for Donegal.

In the first minute Donegal kicked a wide. Fermanagh were in position and going to force the opposition to play through them – that was the game plan. Leo McLoone fouled early in the game and Seán Quigley kicked it over the bar to get their first point, which was almost exactly the start they were looking for.


They were going to try to control the game and force Donegal to play through them, hit them on the break and draw the occasional free. Put the emphasis on attrition. But Donegal’s response was clever. They mirrored Fermanagh’s defensive system early on and neutralised the big advantage that their opponents were hoping to bring into the game.

Fermanagh’s unique selling feature was taken away. Then it was always going to come down to, all things being equal, the better players coming to the fore.

The definitive tactical influence for me was how Donegal pushed up on the kick-out. This was a trend across the three finals in terms of the top teams and Donegal did it every bit as aggressively as Kerry and Dublin did in the Munster and Leinster finals.

Rory Gallagher mentioned in a pre-match interview that he felt the kick-out would be very, very important. Think back to the Monaghan semi-final and it was equally important but Fermanagh won that battle.

Donegal had their homework done and were winning the contest for primary possession. Fermanagh started well but after 10 minutes Donegal took over, pushed up and forced the kick-outs long.

They also had three or four men behind the midfield and another three or four contesting and one or two dropping back from the forwards. It was almost like they were outnumbering Fermanagh by three or four bodies, as the ball was breaking, which gave them a decisive platform.

Fermanagh decided to concede the kick-out to Donegal, which created this imbalance in the game: Donegal were winning almost all of their own and probably 70 per cent of the opposition’s.

Structural strength

So Fermanagh’s structural strength was negated by Donegal mirroring it and their advantage in midfield from the semi-final wasn’t happening.

Individuals were also making big contributions. Paddy McBrearty was marked very tightly but showed the ability to pop in and out of the game and still be incredibly dangerous.

That's how the first goal came about; he got on the ball, released it to Ryan McHugh, who fisted it over to Eoin Bán Gallagher and Donegal got the goal. Exactly what they needed at that moment because the game was tight and it settled them down and enabled them to find their rhythm.

The second goal by Ryan McHugh was just individual class. What he had to do from when he got the ball at the end of a move he had started involved pace, skill, agility, decision making and obviously the finish – just, top, top quality.

The two goals allowed Donegal to open up and express themselves as they have been doing all through the championship. Fermanagh in turn had to come out and play but lacked the creativity going forward and didn’t have the option of going long as everyone was behind the ball. It took until the 33rd minute before Ciarán Corrigan registered what was their first really good team score.

That was simply because their game plan was predicated on being competitive, frustrating Donegal and playing on the break – all of which had been taken away from them. They did make tactical shifts and brought on Séamus Quigley, a second big, target man and maybe in the absence of Neil McGee at full back, going long might have been a strategy they could have used earlier in the game, even with just one big man inside.

By the time that happened, it was too late though because Donegal had found their rhythm. That also meant that any hopes of the younger Donegal players caving into the pressure of trying to win their first provincial championship had evaporated.

There were some great individual performances for Donegal – Ryan McHugh, Hugh McFadden, Eoin Bán Gallagher who got Man of the Match – but for me the one who keeps it all together is Michael Murphy.

The role he plays for the team is incredible: he’s totally selfless, the controller in the middle of the park, the leader, incredibly disciplined and focused – almost obsessed about his football career and doing the best he can for Donegal.

Two years ago I was over in Saracens before the European Rugby Cup final. I spent a bit of time with Owen Farrell and very quickly, you understand how passionate and driven he is – the focus he has and his eyes when we were talking and he was absorbing everything.

Focused environment

I said to him that the only person I had seen the same drive in was Michael Murphy and so Owen being Owen, was keen to hear more about him.

Michael's 12 years into his senior career, is 28 in the prime of his health and is the personality who in my opinion has pulled these younger lads up and who has been instrumental along with Declan Bonner and his management team in their transition from underage.

I was in Cork last week in Fota Island for work and we were just packing up on the Friday afternoon when somebody said that the Kerry team was about to arrive. I met a couple of the Kerry people and was saying, 'you're not just happy to beat Cork but you have to come down the night before to rub their noses in it!'

Of course they denied it.

What it told me was how serious they were about their preparation. The reality is that they were bringing the players into a focused environment.

I thought Páirc Uí Chaoimh looked amazing before the game, on a par with anything at the World Cup. On the pitch though, Kerry just blew them away.

There was a lot of talk beforehand about David Clifford and Seán O'Shea and people are right to be excited about them. They're both 19 and have been given the responsibility to kick the frees. They're symbolic of what Kerry have right now.

Stephen O’Brien’s goal against Cork in many ways represents what all of the top teams have at the moment – pace, power, skill and directness. When Kerry were trying to find David Clifford with a diagonal ball inside the D, it was clear that this is a key move for them, finding a man in front of goal and demanding the run into that position.

The way they play that ball, the very fast hands, heads up, always looking to pass – and the balance in the middle of the field – is directed to these incredible young forwards. Then Tadhg Morley was doing a really good job sweeping and all of these elements came together.

There are very clear goals; no-one’s even a sentence off script in terms of the game plan. They’re very hungry with a lot of hard running in them and able to move the ball at a high intensity.

The only criticism I had of Kerry on Saturday night was that they became a wee bit scrappy after the contest was effectively done, which realistically was around half-time.

Dublin have a tendency to be absolutely relentless whenever they find that rhythm. Although they racked up an unbelievable score, it was almost a bit too easy for Kerry. That's a good thing for Eamonn Fitzmaurice because he'll be able to go back to them, say that it was excellent up to a point but that the ruthlessness to bury struggling opponents has to be developed.

The same patterns from Clones and Páirc Uí Chaoimh were in evidence in Croke Park. From the throw-in Dublin got a goal chance, underwritten by pure aggression, purpose, intensity and play that is so, so direct. That’s a hallmark of Dublin – looking for goals as early as possible and trying to break the opposition psychologically.

Vibrant feeling

On the way back from Cork I had got picked up by a taxi driver who’s a mad Dublin fan. He was talking about how he doesn’t see anyone beating them this year and how good they are. The only negative according to him is that you go to games in Leinster, knowing what the outcome is going to be so you don’t get that feeling that the game is in the melting pot, which has you on the edge of your seat.

Instead of that vibrant feeling you get when a match could go in any direction but you end up on the right side of it, the reality is inevitable.

I thought of him at half-time when Laois had put it up to Dublin. They were letting the ball in early, particularly on the diagonal, which was asking a few questions of the Dublin defence. It was actually a game.

Then at half-time they worked out what Laois were trying to do and once they solved that problem and were able to control the diagonal ball going in under both Kingstons in particular, that was it; game up.

One tactic I thought was fascinating was Laois’s use of goalkeeper Graham Brody as an extra outfield player. Think of what went on in Clones when Donegal pushed up and forced the ball long as well as in Cork and then in Croke Park with Dublin as aggressive as they were.

No matter how many bodies you push up, the goalkeeper is ‘plus one’ and if he’s a good outfield player he can get the team into the final third, which happened on two or three occasions on Sunday. There was real method in the madness. It’s not as risky as people think, either because there’s always a spare man so theoretically you shouldn’t lose the ball – of course that’s theoretically!

Still on the goalkeepers I thought Evan Comerford did very well for Dublin and in his method and style he was very similar to Stephen Cluxton, which is a tribute to the coaching processes behind the strategy.

Like Fermanagh, however, Laois didn’t take on the Dublin kick-out. You’d imagine that Cluxton’s absence presented a real opportunity to get the squeeze on and when you’re playing the big guns, you have to try to jolt their aim off target.

As soon as that Dublin team sheet came in to the dressing-room surely the decision should have been made to push up as aggressively as possible and to get the ball into the edge of the square and really test young Comerford.

They had the players to do that. Donie Kingston is a massive man even compared to Philly McMahon but they never asked the question – a chance missed.

One clear message from the weekend was that the big teams – provincial winners and high scorers – have certain things in common: The aggression with which all three push up on the kick-out, which has been widely noted in recent times, the pace with which they move the ball either with hand or foot.

There’s a selflessness about the players in terms of looking for the best option for the team, which in my opinion is a prerequisite of all three managements – what’s expected and demanded of you in training.

Most tactical

The purpose and intent of the transition up the field in the fastest time possible is also a hallmark of all these teams – particularly in Dublin’s and Kerry’s willingness to kick the ball.

The attitude of players defensively as well as offensively: are they prepared to work both ways?

In the 28th minute in Clones, Donegal were dominating, well ahead on the scoreboard but Paddy McBrearty and Jamie Brennan were both back tackling with intensity on their own 45.

There was another example in the 40th minute in Cork with the score at 2-12 to 2-1 with James O’Donoghue and Darran O’Sullivan tackling as a pair, again with savage intensity, and turning the ball over inside their own half.

Everybody plays – everybody works.

None of these three teams want to let the opposition breathe but will take them on in every facet of their game and squeeze every percentage in their favour.

This business of, ‘oh, let them out and play’ couldn’t be farther from the truth. That truth is that the top teams in the country are the most tactical.

For instance, in the Munster final Shane Murphy puts the ball down in the 45th minute for a Kerry kick-out. All of his defenders are standing together centrally – you could almost throw a blanket over the six of them and two midfielders also in the centre.

Murphy puts both hands on his hips, which is the trigger. He steps back from the ball and has a run-up of five metres. As soon as he starts his run, the Kerry defenders are on the move and before he kicks there are four or five of them on the right wing against two Cork players.

Peter Crowley wins the ball, goes and takes a return pass for what is a goal chance. He strikes it well but it's saved. Had it gone in, it's a goal straight off the training ground.

That’s the level these teams operate at: fine details and with top players to execute the plan.

The question now is, are there two or three teams coming through the back door who could make the first season of the Super 8s one to remember?

I have a feeling there is!