Jim McGuinness: Mark has played key role in Down’s unlikely rise
Eamonn Burns’s excellent game plan and his players’ execution was a joy to behold
Kevin McKernan of Down celebrates at the final whistle of the Ulster SFC semi-final against Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photograph: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Down breathed pure magic into the All-Ireland football championship on Saturday evening and left the rest of country marvelling over what was a fabulous performance that seemed to come entirely out of the blue.
We were all asking the same question afterwards. How did they do that?
Everybody had written off their chances. I’ll happily hold my hands up here in this regard.
When I predicted how the Ulster championship would go this year in this column, I reduced my view to Donegal, Monaghan and Tyrone. I didn’t really think of Down, if I’m being truthful. They just about survived Division Two and had gone two years without a win and seemed stuck in a rut. They seemed lost. And afterwards, it was as though the experience of having fallen so far was the very thing that created the fire within Down on Saturday evening.
It wasn’t as if Down supporters were giving out. They were still turning up. But they were resigned
I feel the key to understanding how the management were able reverse last year’s mauling by Monaghan was in Kevin McKernan’s post-game interview. He mentioned Eamonn Burns’s excellent game plan and the players’ execution of that. Both of these elements were crucial to their win and we will get into that.
But it was only a tiny bit of the conversation. What Kevin spoke mostly about was the black and red jersey, about the team being written off and the pain of knowing that the people of Down had lost faith in them. It wasn’t as if Down supporters were giving out. They were still turning up. But they were resigned. They expected nothing. And it turned out that the players couldn’t live with that.
We spoke a few weeks ago about Kerry needing to win that league final against Dublin. From the early minutes of Down’s game it was clear that the same issue was at stake here. Yes, they were playing smartly and they were utilising the players available to the county to maximum effect. But they were also playing the game as though their lives depended on it. And it caught the entire country unawares, including Monaghan.
And my God, it was so exciting to watch. By the last 15 minutes my heart was racing. We were all sitting watching it at home, totally neutral but completely engrossed in the situation in which both teams found themselves. The thing was that it felt like an Ulster championship match from the 1980s or 1990s in that it was primal and on the edge. It was like back to the future in that a lot of the old qualities were on show. But they were encased in modern day tactics, skill-sets and fitness levels. It was the best of both worlds.
Go back to Tyrone and Kerry in 2003 when Darragh Ó Sé gave a great display of fielding. But the reward was minimal
Again, the mark made a big impact. This is where the old and new overlap. The innovation has been the subject of debate: does the mark slow the game down or facilitate a return of high fielding? I was interested to see how it would play out. And so far, it is a very positive thing.
I feel that coaches will dictate whether it works or not. It is about risk and reward. The reward of going short is, obviously, that you retain possession. What is the reward of going long? Well, there are potential goal-scoring opportunities. The quality of kick-outs continues to improve.
Go back to Tyrone and Kerry in 2003 when Darragh Ó Sé gave a great display of fielding. But the reward was minimal. His problems started when he returned to the ground and was swamped by converging players. Kerry were punished off their own kick-out that day. The weekend before last, Tyrone, who play percentages really well, opted to go long on their kick-out almost all the time. The mark has created that.
So it was a joy to watch players like Caolan Mooney and Kieran Hughes totally committing to catching the high ball on Saturday night. Getting hold of the football became a hugely important mini-victory.
It brought me back to my youth. In our club in Glenties, there might have been a maximum of two or three balls at training. And you might have juniors and seniors together, so you had maybe 30 out in the middle of the pitch as fellas kicked volleys out. You might be there for 25 minutes before training competing and you would value every touch. It felt like that watching Down and Monaghan.
A lot of people here in Celtic look at Gaelic games. And they talk about the speed of hurling. I feel that hurling’s biggest asset is its relentlessness. It is constant. And I think that the mark has the potential to create that energy in Gaelic football because it rewards going long and there is this anticipation of who is going to win the ball. And then a snap pass and you are in the final third of the field very quickly. So it could bring the end-to-end dimension on which hurling thrives.
I have spoken here recently about Monaghan’s structural set up. And I felt Down got their tactics absolutely right in that respect. They identified the space in front of the Monaghan full back line and they were able to play that dink ball into Connaire Harrison and also sought to hit him with diagonal ball. And they displayed very high levels of composure whenever Monaghan did get set up.
I was sitting at half-time thinking that was a brilliant half of football. And I was asking why it was brilliant? There were so many skills of the game on display: long-range points, high fielding, a willingness to put the ball inside and people willing to put their bodies on the line. Conor McManus, for instance, kicked a point which I thought was a thing of beauty. Top of the right, won the ball well inside: no solo, no hop and over the bar. So while there was a serious edge to the game, there was a very high skill level throughout.
And I feel that Down’s approach created that atmosphere. There was a selflessness to their performance and a really hard edge. It reminded me of Armagh in the 2000s. Armagh in that time hit very hard in the first third and the middle third – and indeed, the final third – but they were a bit more disciplined in that area. But that wasn’t the thing. The thing was they hit with consistency.
In Donegal, the Glencolmcille boys used to say: “hit hard and hit often”. The reason for that was that it creates a dynamic within the game. The referee can’t blow for everything. Or he would be blowing all day. So Armagh, by hitting anything that moved, created the terms of the battle. There are petty fouls and petulant fouls and hard fouls. You can sometimes get away with being a tad late if the tackle looks honest. Armagh used to manipulate that boundary very well.
Had Jack McCarron levelled the game with a free, the conversation would have been about Monaghan’s composure and how they wouldn’t make the same mistake in the replay
And I felt Down did that too. They were usually on the line, occasionally over it but very rarely below it. And I felt Monaghan struggled with that level of aggressive intent. Monaghan probably expected to set the terms of engagement. So it was probably a shock when the opposition did that to them. Only harder and better.
And I also thought that Eamonn Burns got the balance between defence and attack perfect. We spoke last week about Donegal’s lack of intensity. Down had 13 back and two full forwards up. Defence is vital to any successful plan. But you must dare to win. And it seemed that Down made that vow. They fired bodies forward with purpose, dared to kick it long and were running the ball with intent. The support was there for the ball carrier on every attack.
So I think modern day football is about getting that balance. You can have that defensive intensity and still be willing to play offensive football. A few people said that Monaghan were complacent and caught on the hop. I don’t believe that was the case. I feel Down came in with a game plan that asked a huge number of questions of Monaghan. They squeezed percentages on both kick-outs, got numbers back and tackled ferociously. To suggest that their win was attributable to a casual approach by Monaghan does Down a disservice.
Down’s fitness levels also came to bear fruit in those frenzied last 15 minutes. Coming down the stretch they tired, but were still hunting and chasing like dogs, even though their discipline went a wee bit. And Monaghan responded really well to the situation they found themselves in. They didn’t wilt and worked their way back to within a score and had a free-kick to level the game. Had Jack McCarron levelled the game with a free, the conversation would have been about Monaghan’s composure and how they wouldn’t make the same mistake in the replay.
But it was Down’s day. They made sure there would be no replay. Now they have taken a big step forward. They created this moment and made it count.
So much of that stems from desire.
When I talk with Celtic players on consultations, I try to give them perspective on what they want out of the game. Sometimes the clarity is there, sometimes not. Some football players have loads going for them in terms of skill and affluence. But it doesn’t necessarily equate to fulfilment. The Down players will be walking on cloud nine this week and there won’t be a penny involved. So when I’m talking with Celtic’s players, I sometimes ask: What do you want out of your career? What do you want your legacy to be?
And I create this scenario for them: If you were in a situation where a family member was hanging over a cliff and you are holding them. And you have to pull them up to get them over to the safe side of the cliff, how hard would you hold on and how deep would you go inside yourself? And the answer would typically be: everything I have in my body. Everything in my power and then some.
And then my follow up is: why not do the same for your football life? The reason any person grips so fiercely onto a loved one on the edge comes down to life experience shared with that person. It is a deep and powerful emotional connection.
That emotional connection is vital in Gaelic games and is what generates nights like Saturday. If you can create a culture powered by that connection and if you can push people to a level that makes them feel they can’t do any more, they automatically connect. That’s what Eamonn Burns has achieved with Down. So in the last 10 minutes, the conversation was not fully about football, it was about emotion. A team that was nowhere and written off brought that level of emotional commitment to bear. They had the work done.
Can they win Ulster now? It is a big question. To win, I feel they have to be able to replicate that atmosphere. For me, it is not just about tactics. Yes, the game plan and its details will dictate how successful they are. But if they bring the same mindset they brought on Saturday night, they will ask questions of Tyrone.
There is the potential for Tyrone to rub their hands here. Because every time Down have done this previously in semi-finals, Tyrone have been the beneficiaries. So the question here is can they go deeper into their psyche, go to a primal level and bring that emotion to bear in the heightened arena of an Ulster final? If the answer is yes, then it could be a very interesting game.
Right now, they have made it out of that place in which they felt lost. That is their starting point. They sought to reclaim that connection with their people and place and look what happened.
Your past is your future.