Wednesday 22 May 2019

Eugene McGee: Colossal clash of styles

Cork defender Noel O’Leary is surrounded by Donegal’s Rory Kavanagh, Daniel McLaughlin and Karl Lacey during their league clash in Ballybofey earlier this year.
Cork defender Noel O’Leary is surrounded by Donegal’s Rory Kavanagh, Daniel McLaughlin and Karl Lacey during their league clash in Ballybofey earlier this year.

Eugene Magee

There are many reasons why supporters look forward to a big championship game in Croke Park -- local rivalry, watching top-class players in action, or the possibility of an upset.

But I've no doubt the biggest attraction for fans looking forward to Cork v Donegal in next Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final is the clash of styles we are likely to see.

Last year the Donegal manager Jim McGuinness took the 'blanket defence' to a new level. It shocked the football public -- most notably in that infamous semi-final against Dublin, which finished on a scoreline reminiscent of a game played a century ago (0-8 to 0-6).

This year Donegal play a more liberal, positive style and it has proved successful as they exerted a stranglehold on Cavan, Derry, Tyrone, Down and Kerry.

Cork had two easy victories against Kerry and Clare, before demolishing Kildare with a show of power and strength, best summed up by a staggering 10 unanswered points in 23 minutes. One certainty about Sunday's game is that this will not happen against Donegal.


The contrast between Cork's traditional 'let her rip' approach and Donegal's carefully measured tactical one should be fascinating, but both managers will have worrying nights ahead as they ponder what might unfold.

It is a long time since we had such polar opposites preparing for a big game. Donegal plan for each game thoroughly, with intensity, and up to now their approach has been broadly successful, but Sunday's game is the ultimate test.

Last year, when confronted with a similar turning point against Dublin, they failed for the simple reason that, while their overriding tactic of stopping opponents from scoring largely succeeded, they failed dismally in getting a decent amount of scores to win the game.

This year, McGuinness seems to have loosened the shackles on the players' attacking instincts and they have been getting big scores.

But it still amazes that Michael Murphy, an attacking genius, has been largely kept away from the scoring zone. It may well be that his role will be altered on Sunday, but generally managers like McGuinness rarely make huge tactical changes, preferring instead to reinforce the structures they have developed so far.

Cork have problems facing into this game. They are regarded as having the best selection of top-class players in the country. Their bench has been a key factor in all their games, most notably when Paddy Kelly and Pearse O'Neill arrived on the field and changed the course of the game against Kildare.

Conor Counihan's problems will not be about individual performances, but rather the Cork team avoiding being sucked into the Donegal grinding machine, which has grabbed opponents by the throat and not let them go in several games. Kerry made valiant efforts to break the Donegal grip, but not enough players responded and they paid the penalty. Can Cork do better?

Mark McHugh has been the key player with Donegal for the last two years because of his ability to direct their defensive system. This starts with McHugh being a seventh defender -- although nominally a forward -- and ensuring that reinforcements from other parts of the field quickly gather around him to swallow up scoring space for opponents.

Cork will have worked out plans to prevent that happening, and one presumes that a Rebel defender will track McHugh all the way upfield, thereby preventing him from enjoying the freedom to play as an extra defender which, surprisingly, other teams seems to have ignored. Even in the modern game, a ruthless man-to-man marker can upset any opponent, at least for one day.

Cork will be aware that a key player in the Donegal attack is Colm McFadden, because he is the most reliable and most confident forward they have.

It is very hard to see him getting much freedom from the Cork defence, who will probably put an extra defender in front of him just to make sure. A cornerstone of Donegal's play is the ability of their massed defence -- often as many as 13 players -- breaking up the field quickly in droves once they have reclaimed possession. This is a crucial ploy for Donegal because, apart from preventing a score, it is a tactic which demoralises opponents who often do not react quick enough.

Only the Cork players know if they have the mental and physical strength to cope with these mass bursts from defence by Donegal, but if they have and can thwart them going forward in packs, then it could deal a mortal blow to McGuinness' men.

In the heel of the hunt this game will be a clash between great individual players utilising their skills against possibly less talented but better organised players with incredible self-belief -- a commodity by the way not often associated with Cork, as we saw against Mayo last year.

It promises to be a tantalising game of football, and hopefully the deliberate cynical fouling aimed at stopping play, so prevalent all season, will not be a feature.

Irish Independent

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