Last season, Donegal’s style of play was ugly. Effective, yes, but woefully hard on the eye. Though they may not have realised it at the time, it actually limited their own prospects as well. This year, their method has evolved significantly. So much so that their manager has been credited – by some at least – with redefining Gaelic football. He hardly has.
What he has achieved, though, is to alter how he sets his team up. A year ago, Donegal resembled a mishmash of both codes of rugby with a bit of American football psycho babble thrown in. Against Dublin, they simply didn’t attack enough. Six points is as paltry a total as can be recalled in a major match. Adopting a ‘what we have we hold’ stance is fine, but to hold it, you must accumulate it.
This time round, the approach is different. Not by any means in terms of abandoning their minutely structured defensive system. But it’s looser. In the sense that the entire team seems to be off the leash. Much has been made of Mark McHugh’s role in it all. Specifically, how deep he operates on the pitch. What’s often overlooked, however, is the speed and regularity with which he breaks up field. Not just him either. Scores have come from all corners – and wings – this term. Frank McGlynn, Neil McGee, Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson all registering, regularly.
Half forwards – or indeed midfielders – dropping back to augment rearguards is no McGuinness manufactured phenomenon, by the way. The Kilkenny hurlers mastered the art a long time ago. Galway copied them in the Leinster Final this year and thus beat them. Right, so it’s slightly different in hurling. Principal among the duties of the retreating troops is to deal with the extra carry of the modern sliotar.
Where the similarity seems most obvious though is in the necessity to stop teams running at you, to force them to shoot from distance. Or preferably, if possible, effect turnovers and break at Bolt-like speed. You know, we’ve been here before, in a way. When Meath were at their zenith under Sean Boylan, at various stages, the likes of Colm Coyle (when notionally deployed a forward), David Beggy, PJ Gillic and even John McDermott often backed up the backs.
Big Mc dropping back when long range missiles rained in was commonplace. In the case of Beggy and Gillic, their role was to curb the attacking influence of the great Dublin half back triumvirate of the day – Paul Curran, Keith Barr and Eamon Heery. Maybe Curran and Heery more so – Barr was generally preoccupied and didn’t stray far from Colm O’Rourke!
Donegal might be credited with – or blamed for it by some – changing football as we knew it. The thing is, how Mayo go about their business is eerily similar. Yet there’s no furore. Hence my headline. The reason why Mayo haven’t got the flak is because they do things in a less obvious manner than the Ulster lads.
Ultimately, it amounts to getting to the same destination by travelling a different route. Well, partly different. Notice how, when Horan’s heroes don’t have the ball, Kevin McLoughlin becomes the seventh defender, midfielder Aidan O’Shea the eighth. What differs from Donegal is that Mayo can mix the forms of the game up better. McLoughlin, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Colm Boyle, Keith Higgins and O’Shea are all powerful ball carriers. But what defines the Mayo way as different, slightly, from the Donegal approach is that they can mix the recipe.
Where Donegal concentrate rigidly on incessant running and working ball into a specific zone before shooting, Mayo can do that, or shoot from distance a la O’Shea or Barry Moran. Or let long ball into the likes of Enda Varley or Cillian O’Connor. Against Dublin, they unleashed the entire cocktail and left the normally ultra organised Dubs in a state of flux they took far too long to snap out of.
So now we are left with a unique All Ireland Final to look ahead to. Not only because it’s the first Ulster/Connacht affair since 1948 either. This could be Gaelic football’s answer to the moon landing. Again, that is not said in jest or derision. These two teams have benchmarked how football now is.
It will be fascinating to see how they deal with one another and, in the end, how one finds a way to bypass the other and bring Sam towards either Croagh Patrick or the other Hills! Logic would say that Donegal might just have the edge. Only because their system seems a lot more developed than last term. By no means, however, is it as easy to predict as a certain RTÉ pundit smugly, rudely and, in my view, belittlingly, stated after Mayo beat Dublin. Indeed, it wouldn’t at all be a surprise if it were to take more than one day to sort this one out.
Now there’s one massive bit of fence sitting, even for a lad that’s in a seat all the time!