Saturday 22 October 2016

Eamonn Sweeney: Let's end myth of Donegal's one-dimensional total defence

Rory Gallagher has brought something fresh to the table

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Donegal's Patrick McBrearty breaks through a challenge from Armagh's James Morgan
Donegal's Patrick McBrearty breaks through a challenge from Armagh's James Morgan

As Donegal knocked the ball around like Barcelona last Sunday, the thought occurred that there are some seriously gifted footballers on this team. Between Murphy, Lacey, Gallagher, the McGees, the McHughs, McGrath, McBrearty et al, Donegal's team is packed with players who've played an awful lot of good stuff over the past few years.

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That might seem like a crashingly obvious observation, but the Donegal team has tended to be seen in the light of Jim McGuinness's personality. The emphasis on the collective nature of the Donegal achievement overshadowed the level of individual talent within the side.

There was also the idea of Donegal as the ne plus ultra of the negative style of football which we are forever being told is leading to the end of the game as we know it. If Murphy, Lacey, Gallagher and their team-mates haven't got full credit for what they've done on the field, it owes a lot to the notion that there was something almost unfair about Donegal's success, that they achieved it by stealing a tactical march which gave them an unprecedented advantage over the opposition.

The players themselves seemed to be overlooked to a certain extent and dismissed as mere pawns on McGuinness's chessboard. Perhaps that's why, in the aftermath of the victory over Armagh, Rory Gallagher was quick to declare: "Tactics get over-hyped. It's about good players playing well and we feel we have a lot of quality players."

The tendency to focus almost entirely on McGuinness's contribution to the Donegal success story accounts for Donegal being more or less written off as serious All-Ireland contenders once the manager had stepped down. Yet two games into the championship campaign it does seem that Gallagher has managed to bring something fresh and exciting to the table. This is not to disrespect McGuinness, Donegal were going nowhere when he took them over and their gifted individuals wouldn't have got to show the full range of their talents without his contribution. But there were times during his reign when Donegal almost seemed too well drilled, too little inclined to do things off the cuff.

This was most obvious during last year's All-Ireland final, a game which Donegal left behind them. There was a tantalising glimpse of what might have been when, in response to Kieran Donaghy's second-half goal, Donegal rattled off three points before falling back into their shell. Their semi-final victory over Dublin showed what the team could achieve when caution was thrown to the wind.

All plans for a defensive game went out the window when they found themselves five points down as Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn sniped points from long range. Donegal were left with no choice but to heed the better angels of their nature and profited massively from it.

Then again, Donegal's negativity has always been greatly exaggerated. The 2011 semi-final defeat by Dublin gets brought up ad nauseam as the perfect example of McGuinness's system at work. But when Donegal actually won the All-Ireland the following year they were a much more rounded and positive team. The 2-18 to 0-13 victory over Down in the 2012 Ulster final, when the team played a kind of Total Football was a case in point. In fact, one of the abiding memories of that campaign was the frequency with which McGlynn, Lacey and Thompson got forward. They were never the one-dimensional swarm defenders of popular legend.

Yet they are different this term and that difference can be seen by contrasting their performance last Sunday with the one they gave against the same opposition in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final. Last year Donegal played it so cagey that they almost lost to a clearly inferior Armagh team. This time around their new penchant for adventure enabled them to wrap the game up by half-time.

Armagh, on the other hand, were a textbook illustration of the drawbacks of the negative style. Their approach was so contaminated by fear of the opposition that even when they fell behind they proved unable to change it. Hence the bizarre spectacle of a team which, trailing by a large margin, continued to play with most of its players defending in depth inside their own half.

The result was that Donegal, who after all didn't need to do any more attacking, spent long periods of the fourth quarter knocking the ball around in the manner of the famous Leeds United series of passes against Southampton back in the Don Revie days.

So reluctant were Armagh to come forward and challenge them that Donegal could probably have held the ball in their own half for the final 20 minutes.

Instead they finished with a flourish, stringing the passes together for Odhran MacNiallais to bring down the curtain with a fine point. The gratuitous sense of adventure displayed in that moment bodes well for Donegal. It will be a long hot summer for Rory Gallagher's side.

Sunday Indo Sport

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