Sunday 22 October 2017

Vincent Hogan: Belief in God-like system swaying Donegal doubters

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

A year ago, the world couldn't look at Donegal without hearing the flutter of bats' wings.

Now it's a blizzard of absolution out there. Jim McGuinness hasn't so much created a team as a movement, a confederacy of football men capable of pollinating all that stark, militaristic discipline with little explosions of art. And, suddenly, the question isn't even whether they can win the Sam Maguire, but whether anyone can realistically stop them.

The system is God. The system is the constitution they live their lives by. The system is a contract signed, essentially, in blood.

And McGuinness, its author, stands on the verge of glorious vindication. The eternal student can already stare down those who condemned that haunted house of a semi-final against Dublin last year and remind them that young experiments should never be subjected to plenary judgment.

Donegal move to a higher tenor now. They mix the obdurate with the symphonic. They play a game that coerces opposing players into bad habits brought on by panic. Maybe the scoreline implies a nervy, lathered passage into next month's final but it was nothing of the sort.


For Colm O'Neill's 72nd-minute goal was no more than a fraying rope flung across a yawning ravine for Cork. Long before then, they had all but gathered their things and boarded the team bus.

Actually, Conor Counihan's men seemed to become reconciled with the certainty of defeat when, with maybe 23 minutes still to play, O'Neill snapped a wonderful effort off the Donegal crossbar.

Imagine knowing, even with that distance still to travel, that only a goal could convincingly resuscitate your challenge. Well, that's what Donegal did to Cork here. They got them to obsess with time.

Maybe you can beat Donegal's system with an orthodox shape, but to do so you must break tackles all day and have an endless flow of support men running slingshot. Cork just about managed that for 35 minutes yesterday and still went to their tea a point adrift. Their dressing-room had to feel cold as the North Sea.

Because there is no real variation on the terms of the challenge that Donegal set you. No emotional or physical arcs. They just keep rolling through the gears with such efficiency, the collective force is machine-like almost, inanimate.

And McGuinness watches it all, arms folded on the line, making sure that all risks are carefully measured, the integrity of every line protected. The perfectionist in him demands things of his team that, even in victory, he finds impossible to suspend.

For a man who had just guided his county to their first final in 20 years, his instinct in the aftermath was still to hold everything up to a sharp light.

The early flurries had disappointed him apparently. "First half, we were a wee bit lethargic I felt," he sighed. "Weren't really at ourselves. The occasion was big, the stakes were fairly high, they'd never been in a final before so I suppose it was normal enough in that situation."

The finish then made him bristle. "Unfortunately (we) overplayed the ball too much," another sigh. "Maybe we got caught up a bit in the whole situation with the crowd, celebrating every pass. We should have just stayed professional, kept the ball moving and try and take the fight to them. We got punished with a goal and, obviously, with a couple of minutes to go, your heart's in your mouth then at the thought of maybe another one.

"So there was a lesson there for us."

Life as he sees it. An endless lesson.

It is fascinating to watch him in the preliminaries, from the moment he exits the tunnel, dipping a hand down to touch the hallowed sod and blessing himself. Soon, he has a whistle to his mouth, conducting warm-up drills with the concentration of a mine-sweeper on the look-out for the tiniest signals of trouble. Everything looks calibrated and synchronised in a way that precludes the element of surprise.

You watch him, thinking the man most probably times his morning shower down to a split second.

Maybe not everyone can warm to that intensity but he has a group here that, palpably, accepts it as the modern gospel. They won this game in the first eight minutes of the second half, kicking three wonderful points from play over the Hill end goal through Colm McFadden, Frank McGlynn and the ubiquitous Karl Lacey.

Four points to the good now and, with Michael Murphy hovering dangerously on the edge of the Cork square, Donegal had this game precisely where they needed it.

Sure, a lot of what they did involved the modern curse of tactical fouling and, routinely, Cork howled out in protest only for the sky to toss back their anger.

For David Coldrick isn't the pedantic sort and chose to penalise only sins he considered mortal. This called for self-sufficient players. And Donegal had squadrons of them.

Cork did things that, over the coming weeks, they won't easily recognise in themselves. Daft shots, weak hand-passes, little meltdowns of composure. They were simply playing (and thinking) at a slower tempo. Once Aidan Walsh flicked a desultory handpass in the general vicinity of Noel O'Leary and McGlynn devoured it, galloping 50 yards downfield to nail a stinging score. That was the tone of it, the tempo.

The ease of it was remarkable. With 12 minutes remaining, Donegal leading 0-15 to 0-10, they fluffed a sequence of four relatively simple scoring chances, Cork unable to get the ball, let alone employ it to any profit.

As Counihan would graciously reflect, "We probably panicked a little, gave a few turnovers and that. Look, to be fair to Donegal, they were the better team on the day, there's no disputing that. I just felt we were taking the wrong options. If you get excited, you tend to take the wrong options. To keep the game alive, you have to keep your head. Maybe at times we didn't pick great options.

"They used the ball better when they got it to be fair and that was the key issue."

Cork, in truth, had been guilty of nothing more than human frailty. They were a bunch of individuals disintegrating against the force of a collective. When Donegal were drawn in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship, not many would have expected them to be still training into September. But that's what McGuinness sold the clubs earlier this year when asking for their forebearance.

"Our training is geared to be in the All-Ireland final," he told them.

So they'll stay abstemious as Mormons this coming month and find themselves loving every minute of it. "We've a month ahead of us now which I'm just after saying to the lads in the dressing-room will be one of the best of their lives," McGuinness confessed with a smile.

"Their whole life will just focus towards this game now, which is fantastic for them. It's great reward for the work they've put in and we just hope now that we've come this far that we can just finish the job off in four weeks' time."

Cunning as a coyote, his may be the template of football's future.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport