A year ago I wrote in these pages about Jim McGuinness – the Special One. Since Donegal’s assault on Ulster and the All Ireland series, McGuinness has been blamed for everything: http://www.anfearrua.com/viewdoc.aspx?id=3214
If ever a game of football took on the status of a video nasty it was Donegal’s tilt against Dublin in the All Ireland semi final. I watched in horrific fascination as all my predictions came true. 1-1 after 24 minutes. The equivalent of an Italian soccer draw. Both teams playing Gaelic Catennaccio in Croker, men behind the ball. Who would blink first? Donegal went 2-1 up after 25 minutes, when Bradley headed in from a corner (only joking of course).
If you read accounts of the game since it would be easy to think that the Dubs turned up to play attacking flowing football. They didn’t and were in their own way as defensive as Donegal. At half time with the score 4-2 to Donegal the wondrous Pat Spillane commented: <i>"I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Heaven help us, if this is the way Gaelic Football is going. We have watched Shiite football."</i>
The game hinged on two incidents. Firstly Colm McFadden hit that ball over the bar after 36 minutes when a goal and the All Ireland Final beckoned. Secondly Karl Lacey had to go off injured.
I know the accepted wisdom is that Donegal are automatons programmed to play in a particular way and players, if well enough conditioned and well enough programmed can fulfill a specific role on the pitch. Ergo a sub coming in will know his role to perfection. Not quite so, for me Lacey glues together the centre of the Donegal defence. It’s as if the white boots are a beacon to the other boys, all thirteen of them.
Irrespective of McFadden’s miss that day, had Lacey stayed on the pitch, he would have blocked off that central channel as he does so effectively and Dublin would not have had the wherewithal to win the game after Kevin McMenamon came in and ran at them.
Mourinho, the original ‘Special One’ talks about key moments in the game. The logic of applying this to a Gaelic football match is that if it is a low scoring affair, as matches involving Donegal last year tended to be, then a single moment here or there can be critical, especially when the opposition have been stifled and frustrated.
Take their game against Tyrone in Ulster. Donegal turned Tyrone over twice to steal two critical points just before half time pretty much against the run of play. The third key moment was when sub Brick Molloy thumped the imperious Joe McMahon in the face, leading to his substitution. In my opinion it was deserving of a red card for Molloy, but that didn’t happen. Instead the Tyrone defence became a creakier place to be and Donegal capitalised.
The key moment in the Ulster Final against Derry was a dubiously awarded penalty when Danny Devlin was found guilty of cleaning Micheal Murphy. Derry were then denied an equally ‘legitimate’ penalty claim at the other end. Game over. Derry swashbuckling performance against Armagh an irrelevance.
Had Donegal beaten Dublin, as they so nearly did, they would have won the All Ireland because Jack O’Connor’s current team does not have the tactical nous to weave their way through the tangled web of Donegal defenders. All 13 of them.
It is to Pat Gilroy’s credit that his team are well schooled and were able to play it whatever was Donegal wanted to play it in the semi final. They struggled like wasps in jam for most of the game but managed to come through.
Donegal’s biggest crime against football wasn’t what they did last summer, and in fact it is something of which arguably they can wash their hands to say Not me Gov. So what is it?
Well, it is the slavish adoption of a poor man’s version of their defensive strategy by club teams up and down the country, who have neither the personnel, the fitness or the brains to defend zonally, creating the primeval swamp that the system requires; or the speed and panache to attack at pace once possession is turned over; or the patience and skill to retain the ball and probe repeatedly leading to a score; or the discipline to retreat into a preordained zonal set up to frustrate the hell out of their opponents.
Some of the worst crimes against Gaelic football I have ever seen are being perpetrated by club managers up and down the country, in the name of this system, as a means to justify their existence. It is awful. A terrible beauty is born. It is strangling the life out of the club game.
To go back to Mourinho, it took the imagination and genius of Pep Guardiola to beat him, but he has had his fair share of days in the sun too and has turned the more glamorous Barca over on several notable occasions. Guardiola’s team was raised on a system of keeping the ball and a diet of short darting movements to probe and attack hither and thither. What Gaelic football needs is a Pep. At the minute though, the man with the upper hand is the Donegal Special One.
Donegal for Sam, mark my words, you read it here first.