Friday 16 November 2018

Donegal – the only team to embrace the drop

Donegal’s Eamon Doherty and Rory Kavanagh battle for possession with Dublin’s Cian O'Sullivan and Ger Brennan during Sunday’s game which saw the All-Ireland champions relegated from Division 1, not that Jim McGuinness was too concerned
Donegal’s Eamon Doherty and Rory Kavanagh battle for possession with Dublin’s Cian O'Sullivan and Ger Brennan during Sunday’s game which saw the All-Ireland champions relegated from Division 1, not that Jim McGuinness was too concerned
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

For Jim McGuinness, the narrative has never deviated once from the pre-ordained script that he has drawn every word from since the draws for the provincial championships were made just weeks after their All-Ireland triumph last September.

Never before in our recall has a manager been as dismissive about the relevance of a league as McGuinness has over the last two weeks.

Never once has he worried about a result going against them, or expressed a concern about any negative consequences about falling off the Division 1 cliff.

Never did he publicly challenge his players to dig themselves out of a hole or raise their game.

On Sunday relegation "wasn't the end of the world" and "wasn't a big issue for us" because there is a certain distaste for the league anyway.

Two weeks earlier, defeat to Mayo, which pushed them closer to the trap door, was something "we can live with" as long as Neil McGee, who had twisted his knee and had to be replaced, was "alright." As it transpires, McGee will be fine.

FOCUS

The "button" for championship preparation was being pushed nine days later anyway, and that was the clear focus that they had – and sure enough they trained hard three times last week in the build-up to Sunday's draw.

Defeat in Cork by two points after they had led at the interval was acceptable because "we're in the middle of a training phase at the minute and that kind of was reflected by the way we played in certain periods of the game."

When Tyrone held them off by four points in early March in Omagh, McGuinness admitted it "wasn't the biggest hit we're going to take."

Even last November in New York, where he was managing one of the All Star teams, May 26 was McGuinness' preoccupation, not a league campaign that offered him nothing else except an opportunity to find a couple of additional players.

"There are a lot of people talking about retaining the title and that sort of stuff. For me, that is not even part of the rhetoric. It's completely irrelevant. For us, it has never been that way," he said at the time.

"For us, a huge focus is now on Tyrone in the first round of the championship. Everything else is in the backdrop. It's just about that game for us."

Throughout, there was always the assurance from McGuinness that this was part of a plan and that they knew where they were at.

There was no 'one game at a time' or 'next game our focus' rhetoric from him at any stage. In fact, McGuinness can probably reflect on a campaign that was superior in performance to what they achieved in 2012 when they survived by scoring the last six points of their last league match against Armagh in Ballybofey to win by three.

They sailed close to the wind then just as they did on Sunday when they were caught.

But they were competitive in every game, as a neutral score difference would suggest and have ironically got more out of their players by doing less. The games they won, they won well and those that they lost were by margins of no more than two scores.

There was no repeat of the abject nature of their defeat to Laois or the performance in Kerry last year.

The correlation between strong league displays and championship progress in Gaelic football has been quite telling in recent years.

Cork did a league-championship double in 2010, something Kerry achieved in 2004 and 2006, while Tyrone did it in 2003. When Dublin won the 2011 title they also performed strongly in the league, losing a hefty lead to Cork in the final.

Donegal are All-Ireland champions but relegation sits easiest with them because, of the eight teams in Division 1, they probably have the second weakest squad. They have long since come to accept the relatively shallow depth of their playing pool.

Navigating a seven-match programme in just nine weeks with those squad limitations just doesn't reconcile with league advancement at this level. Before last Sunday they had used just 25 players, with five of those players featuring for just part of one game.

Against Dublin those figures changed with league debuts for Eamon Doherty and Luke Keaney bringing the total number of players given game time to 27 – Odhran MacNiallais' appearance at half-time on Sunday gave him his second outing.

But with Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey and their 16th and 17th men for much of last summer, David Walsh and Christy Toye, missing out completely, those squad limitations were compounded.

Thus players like Michael Murphy, Eamon McGee, Rory Kavanagh, Ryan Bradley and Leo McLoone started every game, while Paddy McBrearty and Anthony Thompson have started all but one.

It leaves them more vulnerable than any of the championship's protagonists to injuries, but it also gives them the best insight into what their best 15 is. On Sunday, McGuinness spoke of relegation as a potential virtue because of the softer pathway to the championship it offered them in 2014.

It was an interesting take on their predicament, completely at odds, however, with Mickey Harte's assertion that you can't win an All-Ireland from Division 2.

Relegation, however disappointing, just isn't an issue for them. You couldn't say the same about any other team right now.

Irish Independent

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