Sunday 20 August 2017

From little acorns, McGuinness can grow his team

Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

Donegal football engendered a lot of publicity last year, for a variety of reasons, not least because they landed the Ulster senior championship for the first time since they won their only All-Ireland in 1992.

Their new manager, Jim McGuinness, was one of the youngest in the business and he set out to completely demolish the common perception of Donegal football in recent years.

That was one whereby most GAA people thought Donegal players were devil-may-care lads who loved their football but loved several other aspects of modern life even more.

There had been many stories of sloppy attention to training, tales of players drinking too much in the run-up to important games and a general impression that while there were lots of good players in the county, a lot of talent was not being fully utilised. Their championship record of the previous 19 years gave credence to these views.

So few could blame the new manager when he decided to take drastic action to abolish the popular beliefs about the county. To do this he went to the other extreme and adopted a draconian attitude to how the Donegal footballers would be handled.

Discipline, often regarded as bit of a joke in the past, was suddenly elevated to No 1 on the list and this was achieved through previously unheard of levels of training, physical and mental, which decreed that players were either all in or all out of the new system.

There was to be no compromise and therefore no excuses -- on either side.

The second fundamental change regarding Donegal football was the style of play to be adopted and it was this which got the attention of GAA people nationwide. McGuinness set out to develop the first county team at the highest level to be based almost exclusively on a defensive system.

Lots of teams had done this in other sports but never in Gaelic football, where it was always thought that at least eight players would reasonably expect to get scores in a game, preventing defensive play being used as a primary system of play. This drastic new tactical approach was facilitated in Donegal's case by the long tradition in the county of playing a short passing game.

We have all heard of the unusual statistic from the 1992 final against Dublin when Donegal full-back Matt Gallagher is said not have kicked the ball once in the course of the game.

It was from that background that McGuinness set out his stall and there was one withering comment from him last June which summed up his philosophy, when he stated: "Donegal seems to be this county that everyone can have a good laugh at because we're not that serious". That was all to change.

The Donegal defensive system pleased nobody outside the county, and greatly annoyed many, but much the same happened when the 'new' handpass style became rampant in the 70s. But at least that brought about a rush of scores whereas Donegal, and their opponents it must be said, usually scored below-average tallies.

The peak of Donegal's containment game was against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final when they used the hand pass 243 times but interestingly went very close to beating their opponents that day.

We have a new season now and so it was interesting to watch how Donegal would play against Laois in an important Division 1 game, as both counties had lost their opening league clash. Would McGuinness maintain the same style of play or move towards a more attacking system to get more scores?

The fact that their two best forwards of last year -- Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden -- are currently injured and fitness levels are lower in February, as opposed to summer time, prevents an exact game plan from 2011 being applied anyway, of course.

exploits

Unfortunately, any resemblance between Donegal yesterday in Letterkenny and their exploits last year was purely coincidental because this was one of the team's worst performances for many a long day.

They were completely outclassed as a team by Laois and how ironic it was that many of the examples from Donegal last year were put to good use by Laois, who played with wonderful passion, great physical courage and admirable ability to open up what we all thought was a rock-solid Donegal backline.

It was Laois who quickly got men back into their backline on the odd occasions when Donegal looked like scoring and it was Laois who gave and took the hard knocks best in the many close-up physical exchanges.

Donegal scored just four points in the first half -- all from young star Paddy McBrearty -- but they fared even worse after the interval when it took them all of 25 minutes to get their first score of the half -- by which point Laois had racked up 2-9.

In fairness to Donegal, they did stage a courageous rally -- and got two quick goals in the final quarter -- but Laois kept their cool and survived for a precious pair of league points.

Donegal have a long way to go to restore their panache and work rate of 2011, but the season is still very young and yesterday's game will surely motivate all concerned to get the show on the road again soon.

Irish Independent

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