Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 16 December 2017

Sigh of relief greets defeat of nihilists' anti-football

Tommy Conlon

If there was one man more relieved than Pat Gilroy with Dublin's win last Sunday, it was perhaps Jim McGuinness.

The Donegal manager seemed far from devastated in his post-match interviews. In fact, he looked and sounded a contented man. In a secret compartment of his mind he may have felt that an All-Ireland final against Kerry would have been too much too soon for his team.

It had already been a very good season. They had an Ulster title in the bag, they'd frightened the life out of Dublin and they could return home with their heads held high.

Except, of course, for the small matter of their rancid style of play. Now, of all the counties one would be reluctant to criticise, Donegal are at or near the top. Anyone who has holidayed in that beautiful region will surely have come across people who are among the nicest and friendliest to be found anywhere on this island.

Maybe that was the problem for McGuinness and his players; maybe they were fed up being nice. Especially when all they got back from it in Ulster were batterings, in every sense, from the likes of Armagh and Tyrone. There was a sense about the manager this year that he was on a mission to avenge all the hurts and humiliations of his own playing career.

One hopes he has got some of it out of his system now. McGuinness is a bright and thoughtful coach so we assume he will re-calibrate his strategy for next year. This extreme commitment to defence can only have a certain shelf life anyway. It doesn't just grind oppositions down; it eventually grinds down the players who have to implement it too. The fitness levels it requires can hardly be sustained season after season, especially when they are used almost exclusively for destructive purposes. At its heart there is a lack of joy about it that presumably drains the collective morale of a team at some stage. Ultimately, every footballer wants to play with the ball, not just stop other teams from playing with it.

Mind you, there was undoubtedly a lot of joy among these Donegal players the day they won the Ulster title in July. On a night like that, there was no question in the players' minds that all the punishment had been worth it. The brutal slog had yielded a big prize. A lot of neutrals were prepared to give them a break on the basis that an Ulster title had been a long time coming. They followed that up with a monumental match against Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final. It was hard to criticise players when they'd emptied themselves so completely and pulled a victory out of the fire in such dramatic circumstances.

But last Sunday they lost a lot of friends. It was a hideous match. It seemed as if this was the day when the blanket defence as pioneered by Tyrone, and infamously deployed in the 2003 semi-final, reached its logical conclusion. It was our old friend, the new nadir. Donegal were negative to the point of nihilism. They scratched out a miserable four points for themselves in the first half and manacled Dublin to a farcical two. We were approaching, almost literally, the zero sum game.

In living rooms all over Ireland a dread was descending that Donegal might actually win this match. Thousands of neutral fans who might have been well disposed to them were abandoning Donegal at a rate comparable with Fianna Fáil's collapse in the general election.

It wasn't just the ridiculously overloaded defence. It was the cynicism too. The substitute Marty Boyle should hang his head in shame for the way he dived to engineer Diarmuid Connolly's sending-off. And a good veteran like Kevin Cassidy should be embarrassed for the way he goaded the linesman who had to adjudicate on the incident.

After all that, there was the wearying, interminable handpassing of the ball, over and over, backwards and forth -- as if the negativity and cynicism weren't bad enough without dosing us with tedium too. The reason, of course, why they kept recycling possession was because they had no one inside to target with direct ball. The forwards were all too busy imitating worker ants further out the field.

Dublin weren't exactly trying to play with all-out adventure either. They had their own Iron Curtain across the half-back line and, like Donegal, sometimes had three or four defenders back to keep an eye on one lone forward inside.

In attack, they struggled woefully to adapt to the new reality in front of them. Against Tyrone in the quarter-final, they'd hit their inside line with early ball from long range. It worked a treat and last Sunday, first half in particular, they persisted with long ball to Bernard Brogan who was being triple-marked. Other times they just kicked it in when there was no one there at all.

For most of this game there were alarming signs that they lacked the basic field intelligence to solve Donegal's unique challenge. In fairness to them, we'd imagine if Dublin had to play them again, they'd get to grips with it sooner.

And eventually, finally, they did just that. They came out the other side; they got the job done. At which point, the sigh of relief could be heard all over Ireland.

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