Jim McGuinness: Rivals will need new game plan to beat Dublin

‘I believe Mayo have the potential to beat Dublin in an All-Ireland final’

Dublin celebrate another All-Ireland victory in front of Hill 16 last September. “My feeling is that they are beatable. They absolutely are beatable.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Dublin celebrate another All-Ireland victory in front of Hill 16 last September. “My feeling is that they are beatable. They absolutely are beatable.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


If you chat to anyone about this year’s All-Ireland championship, sooner rather than later, the conversation turns to whether Dublin can be beaten. The All-Ireland champions have cast such a formidable spell over the football scene that it is difficult for people to see beyond another sweep. My feeling is that they are beatable. They absolutely are beatable.

The chief intrigue lies in whether or not the teams capable of achieving that are in the frame of mind to make it a reality. You have to dare to win, particularly against this Dublin team. They are an exceptional football team. But they are the defending champions and the toll of last year’s push plus the celebrations in the autumn can become wearing. It can hit a team unexpectedly during high season.

Also, Dublin have lost two key starting players in Rory O’Carroll and Jack McCaffrey. The full back position has yet to be tested. It is only when the pressure really comes on that we will discover how much – if at all – Dublin will feel the absence of those two players. But the conversation about Dublin’s advantages and their squad depth and athleticism is old at this stage. Everyone knows their strengths. So: what are you going to do about it? What is your plan of action?

I feel Mayo, Kerry, Donegal and possibly Tyrone have the wherewithal to beat Dublin this summer. By extension, I believe there won’t be any radical shift in power in the provincial championships.

The problems with the structure and fairness of the All-Ireland championship will remain huge issues and will be part of the running narrative this summer. The current format is jaded and unfair but there seems to be little appetite within the GAA to address that. So this weekend sees the start of the provincial championships, which will run until late July.

Foregone conclusion

Munster is still reducible to Cork and Kerry. Cork remain an intrigue to me. They were relegated from Division One in the league. But there they were again in the U21 final recently. They have big, physical players, a number of truly top quality forwards and they are consummate ball players. Why aren’t they making a bigger impact? I feel the potential in the squad is enormous but they have to create an environment where there is a shared vision of where they want to go and a belief system behind that. There has to be a very strong leadership among the senior players and at management level.

And they have to start working incredibly hard. They need a game plan they can believe in. When I refer to a ‘game plan’, people probably assume I’m talking about something similar to the way we played in Donegal during my time there. I don’t mean that at all. For instance, the most ridiculous game plan you could devise would be to send a team out with the instruction of no solo, no hop. Strictly catch and kick. Imagine going out and playing like that in the Ulster championship! People would assume you were mad.

But the thing about that game plan – if a team works on it – is that once a player catches the ball, the player inside him knows the ball is coming and makes his run accordingly. So everyone is on the same page and everyone understands what is going to happen next. That is a coherent game plan even though the concept is ridiculous. If you can come up with 20 or 25 variables built around intelligence and everyone knows what is happening next and everyone is switched on and believes in it and can see that it works, then you have a game plan.

All teams have their individual take on how the game should be played. That’s fine. But it has to be able to stand up to a stress test based on intelligence, the players available to you and the clarity of that plan. Cork, for instance, have to maximise what they get off their own kick-outs. I don’t believe they have been doing that. They have to make a concerted effort to close down opposition kick outs.

They have become too easy to beat and need a better defensive plan. It is about squeezing percentages in their favour because they are lucky; they have good players.

Second Captains

Kerry are in the midst of a huge internal push, driven on one hand by the senior players to win another All-Ireland before they retire and by Eamonn Fitzmaurice at management level. Their main local and national rivals have a younger age profile and it’s vital their game plan acknowledges that. They have a lot of quality and are minor champions for the last two years; it will be interesting to see if one or two of those players pop up mid-summer.

Expansive game

Sam Maguire

But their self-belief is clearly massive. They are so close. The Mayo seniors need to take inspiration from the U-21 team who seem to have achieved the balance between defence and attack. That U-21 team made themselves hard to beat. They competed at centrefield and let the ball in quickly to their forwards. No one failed to celebrate at the end of the final because they were defensive in orientation. They didn’t relinquish the Mayo values and still played an expansive game.

In Ulster, all the talk is about Tyrone. I feel they are being overhyped a little bit. They look cohesive and know their game plan but do they have the quality of attacker that other teams have? They will be a tough nut to crack. However, I still believe Donegal have the best pound-for-pound players in the province.

I don’t see a Michael Murphy in the Tyrone team. Or even in terms of predators, I don’t see a Paddy McBrearty. The big question for Donegal is: can everyone get up to the level that makes them very competitive? Time will tell if they still have the legs. But I clearly remember when Donegal were beaten by Monaghan 1-16 to 1-10 in the Division Two final of 2014. The criticism they received afterwards was staggering. People had a good go because they believed Donegal were all but buried. But it was a different story internally. So I would not quickly write this Donegal team off. An Ulster medal is incredibly important to the lives of these players. It is celebrated like a mini-All-Ireland and cherished for the rest of your life.

Very confident

Donegal’s style is not as fast-shifting as it was and that suits Monaghan too. They feel they have a good man marker to detail Michael Murphy and Colin Walshe to pick up McBrearty so they will feel well placed to win a tight, cagey game. But if Monaghan beat Donegal, then Tyrone will feel very confident in the final.

There are interesting teams out there. Cavan will feel they can win Ulster this year. I don’t think they are at that stage yet but they will bring a lot to the championship. Galway are certainly working on a game plan to take Mayo down. It will be extremely tight but I expect Mayo to still be Connacht champions when it is over.

It’s not a very hopeful scenario for the majority of counties starved of provincial success, let alone All-Ireland glory.

For all its tradition and importance in Irish life, the All-Ireland football championship is deeply unfair. We all know that. A divide has emerged and the GAA is turning a blind eye to that.

Dublin play Laois or Wicklow in Kilkenny on the June bank holiday and that will be Bernard Brogan’s first game outside Croke Park in the championship. Is that fair? Of course it is not. Is it fair that one team gets €4 million in sponsorship? Of course it is not. If you want to retain hope and faith, the structure must be looked at. But rather than criticise Dublin, the GAA should take its lead from what Dublin have done and replicate that across the country.

The GAA should sell the sponsorship rights in each county and the money should be pooled. All players and teams contribute to the All-Ireland so a certain percentage of the gate receipts should be redistributed to allow a better national coaching infrastructure. If, that is, the GAA is genuinely an amateur organisation which believes in fairness and in the equality of each county? All pigs are equal. Or are some pigs more equal than others?

It would take time to implement and it won’t weaken the strong counties. But it may give the others a fighting chance.

The contest for the big spoils will be played out by the usual suspects. I believe Mayo have the potential to beat Dublin in an All-Ireland final. But it remains to be seen if they will take the action required to make that happen.

Sweeper system

So are the teams trying to beat Dublin this summer going to to do the smart thing that is required to actually beat Dublin?

Or are they just going to keep on doing what they have done? I’ve watched Mayo in Connacht and in the All-Ireland series and I have very, very rarely seen a change in style. But they need to go somewhere new in order to take this Dublin team down.

Give Dublin the respect they deserve; fine-tune a very, very detailed game plan based on what Dublin are about. Then bring your strengths. Be cognisant of the fact that Dublin have six top quality forwards; that Stephen Cluxton brings what he brings; that they have a sweeper system. So what is the best way to get around that? You can’t just go in with a vague notion that you are good enough to beat this team. You need a game plan to get around Cian O’Sullivan.

You need a game plan to take advantage of the fact that their best full back in years is at the other end of the planet. You need specific strategic thinking to cope with their strengths – and their weaknesses. If Mayo do make that jump in approach and tactically, then it becomes a 50-50 game.

But the big question is whether Mayo or any other team is planning their championship campaign with that intent right now. If not, then I feel that Dublin will win the All-Ireland again. Just because they can be beaten doesn’t mean they will be.

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