Sport Gaelic Football

Thursday 19 April 2018

Game of chess

It's a match that might end with a courteous "checkmate" rather than a long final whistle in Croke Park at around 7.30 this evening.

Karpov versus Kasparov it may not be, but when Donegal's Jim McGuinness and Kildare's Kieran McGeeney go head-to-head for the first of the All-Ireland quarter-finals in Croke Park, the air will be thick with strategy, system, science and a few cunning killer moves.

There will be plenty of football too. It's a misconception, certainly in Kildare's case, that instinct and spontaneity are left at the door when they come to play football matches these days.

If they are as robotic as some suggest, how could they score 18 points from play in a Leinster final two years ago or accumulate 19 in Croke Park just seven days ago against Derry.

But, that aside, they do play with a very definite structure that has, for the most part, served them very well over a four-year cycle under McGeeney.

Donegal are in the first year of their spin under McGuinness and are already well ahead of the targets they would have set for themselves.

McGuinness and his assistant Rory Gallagher have predicated everything on the basic fundamental that they must make themselves hard to beat -- and that is exactly what they have done.

Their meeting this evening provides the most enticing of All-Ireland quarter-final pairings and arguably one of the most intriguing games of the championship so far.

In essence, it may be the clearest crystallisation of the journey gaelic football is taking when two bright young managers, not long out of playing the game, take their teams into combat.

McGuinness has overseen a complete transformation in the way Donegal play and think since taking charge last August.

From the disillusioned bunch that left Crossmaglen at the end of June last year, they are virtually unrecognisable.

Indeed, some of the team's mannerisms bear comparison to the enthusiasm and novelty of Mickey Harte's first year in charge of Tyrone eight years ago.

Harte fostered a culture of togetherness in that first year, from pulling on their jerseys together to singing 'Amhran na bhFiann' afterwards in celebration of victories, the words of which most of the players had to learn that season.

moment

When Donegal landed the Ulster title two weeks ago, McGuinness was literally yanked from conducting post-match interviews by Kevin Cassidy because there was a 'moment' to share together in the dressing-room, a 'moment' that they had planned months earlier once the Anglo Celt was in their possession.

Within minutes, they had filed back out through the narrow corridor in Clones that leads to their dressing-room to rejoin their family and friends outside. Some 90 minutes later, they were still in the ground and in the silence of an empty stadium they stood for a group photograph, back-room staff and players dressed in their official team polo shirts. Tyrone eight years ago might have done something similar.

The comparison with Tyrone 2003 does not end with just the strength of the team bond that McGuinness and Gallagher have been endeavouring to create.

The statistics of their parsimony also stack up. The last football team to concede less than 10 scores in as many consecutive championship games was, indeed, Tyrone in their last four games of the 2003 campaign.

Over a two-month period from the replayed Ulster final in late July to the All-Ireland final in late September, Tyrone conceded just 1-25, deploying a defensive system that would propagate the phrase "puke football" and associate it indelibly with modern football.

Shipping just 1-5 against Down in the provincial final replay, 0-5 against Fermanagh in the All-Ireland quarter- final, 0-6 against Kerry in their penultimate game and 0-9 against Armagh in the final itself, Tyrone strangled their opponents with a disciplined defensive strategy that has been the template for so many to follow in the intervening years.

Donegal have conceded 1-32 in their four championship matches to date, an average of 8.75 points per game.

The only goal they leaked was a penalty to Cavan in the Ulster quarter-final on a day when McGuinness promised that the shackles would be off.

Not since 1993, when Derry conceded 8.66 points per game in three contests, has a team conceded as little on the way to an Ulster title.

preventing

Their philosophy focuses mainly on preventing one-to-one goal opportunities for opponents and, so far, their goalkeeper Paul Durcan has had an armchair ride.

At any given time when Donegal don't have possession, they will have 11 men behind their own '45', with just Patrick McBrearty, Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy retaining an advanced position. Even Murphy has been detailed to take up deeper positions in the early part of the Ulster championship.

It was interesting to watch how quickly they set up their defensive alignment against Derry in the Ulster final.

When possession was lost, all but the front three instantly raced back to take up specific positions on or behind their '45', which became the point of contact. Some had their backs to the play in their hurry to retreat, in the same way you might expect a basketball team to react.

Of Derry's points from play, substitute Martin Donaghy was the only kicker who was not really put under any pressure. Half-forward Mark McHugh, son of Martin, is the anchor sweeper, but Ryan Bradley and Michael Hegarty, back after a 12-month retirement, will also drop deep and invite opponents on.

It isn't pretty and the comment of Liam Bradley, the Antrim manager, after the Ulster preliminary round in May that he wouldn't have paid to see the game, was a strong indictment of the fare on offer. But the system has been perfected sufficiently for Donegal to win a first Ulster title in 19 years.

Can the players continue to buy into it in Croke Park, where the natural tendency will be to play with more freedom?

Kildare have the experience of trying to break down a similar system to Donegal when they met Dublin in the Leinster semi-final in June. In training, they have regularly simulated match situations that involve defences with extra personnel.

They have perfected their own system of play with a 2-2-2 attacking alignment and the deployment of a sweeper, usually centre-back Morgan O'Flaherty, when opponents are in possession.

Only the front two, probably Tomas O'Connor and James Kavanagh, will be spared defensive chores when they don't have possession.

In theory it won't be a high-scoring match, but it will be a fascinating one, nonetheless. When the sides met in the league in Letterkenny, it ended in a low-scoring draw, Donegal's 0-8 to Kildare's 1-5.

A pristine Croke Park will invite more enterprising play and ambition, but with only two draws from 52 games so far, referee David Coldrick could find himself declaring a 'stalemate' rather than a 'checkmate'.

Irish Independent

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