Thursday 17 August 2017

Joe Brolly: Down take leaf out of Jimmy's gospel of extremism

Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness
Down rediscovered their pride last Saturday night. A great county got off its knees. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

"I found Leverkusen's style of play very interesting as Roger was one of the coaches whose approach I was studying closely. They were one of the few football teams that play very direct, very intense football predicated on intensity. It is about asking questions of the opposition and trying to overwhelm them and never allowing them to settle. And I was drawn to that."

Jimmy McGuinness, June 29, 2017

It is no surprise that Jimmy has been recruited as assistant coach by Chinese Super League team Beijing Sinobo Guoan FC. I wrote three years ago that he would one day manage Barcelona, and this is another step on his audacious journey to the top.

His All-Ireland win in 2012 remains the most extraordinary sporting coup I have seen, marking McGuinness out as an extraordinary man and manager. It was Beijing's new head coach Roger Schmidt who brought Jimmy on board. Schmidt previously managed Bayer Leverkusen, and how they first met sums up the Donegal man. McGuinness, fascinated by his methods, met Schmidt as he waited for a flight to Germany at Dublin Airport and spent two hours making notes, as the German "walked me through his game-plan and style of play. I feel we think similarly and share core principles." The Donegal man obviously made a profound impact on Schmidt. When he moved to Beijing, McGuinness was his automatic choice as assistant first team coach.

Jimmy is extraordinary, because like Alex Ferguson, or Mourinho, he is an extremist. And to win big in high-level sport, the essential component is extremism, a mindset and game-plan that overwhelms the opponent, physically and psychologically. So, in his weekly conversation with The Irish Times, Jimmy was glowing in his praise of Down's vibrant assault on Monaghan last Saturday.

Down reminded us that championship is about extremism. Football, in the race to conform to a formulaic, highly-scripted game-plan, has almost forgotten that the first essential component of the game is to compete as though your life depends on it. It is why Down's performance unleashed a tidal wave of nostalgia and excitement. In hurling, they have never forgotten this, partly because massive figures like Brian Cody have stuck to their principles.

And as the two games have taken very different paths in the last decade, the media and football folk have begun to see hurling as somehow crazy and lawless, merely because the hurlers get stuck in. They get stuck in because our games have always been about pride in our people and a sense of togetherness. We feel a deep emotional connection to place and to each other and we do not want to let the side down. So, when McGuinness said last week that the game on Saturday night was a throwback to the hair-raising championship experiences that were routine during the 1980s and '90s, this is what he meant.

John Brennan is probably the most successful club manager in the history of Gaelic football. His mantra was 'Bone the b*****ds'. He encouraged hard hitting and ferocious application. His teams were always emotionally prepared for the fray. To beat them, you had to go to the limits of your character.

'I want youns to be hateful b*****s like those Meath men' was Eamonn Coleman's mantra, 'youns are too nice.' He said it to us all the time. Coleman positively salivated over those Meath boys, Harnan, Lyons, O'Rourke, O'Malley and the rest. He understood that it was the only way. Recently, reflecting on their great years from 1987-'91, Liam Hayes said: "Kerry showed us in the 1986 semi-final that we were too nice. Physically, they bullied us. We didn't make that mistake twice." The following year, Meath were ready to bone the b******s. The All-Irelands followed. They became the most feared, most brilliant team in the land, doing something that the Kingdom had been doing for a century.

Down rediscovered their pride last Saturday night. A great county got off its knees. Championship football is much more than well-prepared, well-resourced, super-fit, tactically astute teams with a carefully worked-out system. It is, more than anything, about pride and emotion; a primal roar of 'This is who we are'.

So, Down went back to the future, and got ripped into the Monaghan men. From the whistle, they hit them and hit them and hit them again. Within a few minutes, two Monaghan forwards were nailed in the same play, three Down men hurtling into them, leaving them both lying on the ground. A primeval yawp went up from the crowd. The game was afoot.

If you listened to a sound tape of the game you would have sworn you were back in the '90s, when the supporters shouted and roared and gasped and squealed as the game unfolded. Because Down fully committed to the contest, with no thought of the scoreboard or of tomorrow, the rest of us became fully committed.

No time for conversation, or for those at home watching, no time for making a cup of tea or flicking channels. When human beings push themselves to their limits, it is a deep, utterly absorbing experience.

The Down goal was a classic example of a team living only in the moment. By then, Rory Beggan was confused and demoralised. He panicked and the short kick-out was easily intercepted. Almost any other team would have taken the easy fisted point. But the spirit of Sean O'Neill is in the blood of every Down footballer. Sean used to say, "Take your points and the goals will come? A load of nonsense gentlemen. Go for your goal. Only settle for a point if a goal is impossible."

Which is exactly what Down did. In common with their attitude throughout the 70 minutes, they fearlessly went for goal. The man who intercepted was on his own and instead of heading for goal, he held the ball up, waited for the support, dummied, hand-passed it off. The man who took the pass made a beeline for goal and was taken down. Darragh O'Hanlon was asked on Radio Ulster afterwards about the penalty. "I was going to put it in the corner but as I stepped up to take it, I saw Rory diving and so I just put it down the middle instead." When you are in the zone, you see these things. Nothing else exists. Nothing else matters.

Today, Cork footballers must do the same. Their hurlers have already begun the rebellion, beating Tipperary, the champions, a team tipped to create a dynasty, and Waterford, a team obsessed with tactics. Cork got trollied into them both. They made each game a battle, a battle for their pride and their people. The main component was emotion, a visceral, powerful emotion, that roared 'This is who we are'.

The pitch invasion after the Waterford game, when Cork children sprinted onto the field to engulf their lads, was one of the most emotive things I have seen in recent years. It is what their footballers must do today.

Two years ago, they played as though their lives were at stake, stunned Kerry, the reigning All-Ireland champions, and were robbed of a brilliant victory by one of the worst refereeing decisions of the modern era. In the semi-final against Tipp, when Tipp scored the goal that looked to have won it, they responded with an extraordinary winning goal from the kick-out, reminiscent of Meath's immortal goal to win the 1991 Leinster Championship saga against the Dubs.

They need to build on that today. In a football match, anyone can be beaten.

Down have reminded us of something that we had almost forgotten. Something that is going to make Jimmy McGuinness a world-famous soccer manager over the next decade. That, in the end, high level sport is about extremism.

"Jími zhengzai yíngdé bisai" as they'll soon be singing on the terraces in Beijing.

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