Colm Keys: McGuinness held back by his own limited approach
Published 29/08/2011 | 05:00
Maurice Deegan barely had his whistle out of his mouth to call full-time when Jim McGuinness came trotting down the line to shake the hand of his opposite number Pat Gilroy.
From there he spun out around the middle of the field to convey similar good wishes to random Dublin players that crossed his path.
Stephen Cluxton, still as confused and bewildered as the rest of us at how this All-Ireland semi-final had unfolded, got a warm handshake before he had even made it to within close proximity of any of his colleagues.
Back to the area where Donegal officials were congregated, McGuinness' face displayed no hint of dejection at an opportunity lost. The gestures were magnanimous and the delivery in each case was courteous to a fault.
They weren't the movements of a manager who had engineered a two-point interval lead or kept a Dublin team, which contained two of the great modern-day forwards and a young man who had stuck Tyrone for seven points from play just three weeks earlier, scoreless from play for 60 minutes.
Nor were they the movements of a manager whose side had Dublin on the edge of the abyss either side of half-time, draining the last remaining ounce of patience from them.
No, McGuinness carried the air of a manager satisfied with his year's work. And so he should be after eliciting a league title and Ulster championship in his first season from much the same group of players that had slipped out of Crossmaglen 14 months earlier humiliated by the home side in a first-round qualifier.
But where was the ambition to kick on and win this All-Ireland semi-final when the opportunity really presented itself here?
Where was the chase or urgency when Bernard Brogan slipped a pass across the goalmouth to Bryan Cullen and the Dublin captain kept his composure to put his team in front for the first time 62 minutes in?
Donegal had come to contain, to frustrate and be awkward. And they were all of that in a cynical and dour game.
But by persevering with their heavy defensive orientation right to the death, even as the game was slipping by them, it begged the question as to whether actually winning the game had been stitched into their psyche in the first place.
It was akin to the band playing as the Titanic sank. You can't win an All-Ireland semi-final playing from your own half for its entirety and ultimately Donegal's refusal to budge cost them.
The deployment of Michael Murphy so far from the Dublin goals said everything about the depth of Donegal's ambition. As a midfielder, Murphy is no more than above average; as an inside forward, he can be devastating and with Rory O'Carroll out of the game so early, did it not make sense to push Murphy back in?
You might as well lose a semi-final by five or six points than one or two. Unless of course your plans aim for fruition much further down the road.
In time they may look back at this afternoon as an opportunity lost rather than a step in their development.
McGuinness may well find these sentiments strange for a team that has come so far so soon. Not for the first time after a game has he had to place his head in the stocks and take the flak for the way he sets his team out and the way they execute his plan to the letter of the law.
Their strict adherence to that law is admirable. As Gilroy put it, why would they leave space for a team that had scored 0-22 three weeks earlier?
So McGuinness remains unapologetic to the neutral who would have found this unpalatable.
His job, he says, is to put medals in players' pockets. An obligation to the game in general is not Donegal's concern. "Everybody's got an opinion. It's irrelevant to us. For 19 years Donegal would have been playing a certain brand of football," McGuinness recalled.
"It hasn't served us well and it hasn't brought the fellas who have put in an awful lot of work on the training field over the last 19 years the achievements they deserve.
"If it was the normal, standard, run-of-the-mill Donegal, it'd be, 'go out in a blaze of glory, great football there, hard luck, beat by five points, you played really well on the day but you were never going to win the game'. Our job is to make them better.
"The pundits have their opinion, the man on the street has his opinion and my job is to try and put medals in our players' pockets. We've managed to do that twice this year and we were very close to an All-Ireland final. The means justifies the end and that's just the way it is for us.
"We'll obviously try and improve ourselves and look forward to trying to do that over the winter. We won't be going to Ballybofey or Castlefinn next year when we start off training thinking how we can make Pat Spillane feel good.
"That won't be our primary objective when we start training again. It will be about preparing for the Ulster championship and tweaking the game plan."
From McGuinness there is an acknowledgement that they have to add more strings to their "offensive" bows, a part of their game he was disappointed with.
"They could have pushed on and ended up in an All-Ireland final. We have a young team and we need to go away now and see if we can make our squad stronger and see can we sort out our offensive side of things.
"We never said we were the finished article at any stage. We've said we're a work in progress and we're very early in our development."
"Moving up the next 10 or 15pc is a big challenge and we have to do an awful lot of work to address that."
Being more ambitious is an obvious starting point.