Tuesday 20 March 2018

Donegal's revolution in tactics worked this time but the element of surprise has gone

Talk of a major change in the way football is played is premature, says Colm O'Rourke

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

How do you tell the difference between a good year and a bad year in football? In Donegal's case, it was a brilliant year and the players, management and supporters are not in the slightest bit worried about the quality of the game or any discussion on its future. So it should be. Everyone has a piece in the jigsaw of the game and the winning county should celebrate without too many considerations.

To most observers, this year appeared like a revolution in football, a new game played like chess with the implication that others would have to copy or risk being left behind. Forgive me if I don't join this queue.

The first revolution I heard about was Antrim in the 1940s I think, who adopted a distinctly basketball-style approach; in the '50s Dublin, with Kevin Heffernan roaming outfield from his position in the full-forward line, was a new departure for the time.

Perhaps the greatest leap forward in tactics took place with Down in the 1960s as their fluid, skilful forward play opened up defences and presented a new challenge for backs. Of course this team had some of the greatest forwards ever in men like Seán O'Neill, Paddy Doherty and James McCartan. If they were around now they would still be great players as men of quality would adapt to the prevailing type of game.

They were replaced by two great sides in the '70s, Dublin and Kerry, who were revolutionary in their own ways and it is probably the only time that two of the best sides ever were in the same era, even if the Dubs had gone slightly over the hill when Kerry peaked.

Yet their clashes over a four- or five-year period dominated conversation and captivated audiences. With the benefit of hindsight and TV repeats, they reveal a lot of downright bad football, especially poor kicking. So when anybody tells you about the quality of point-scoring in the past, young people in particular can point to these matches and ask, as they do, "are you having a laugh?"

After that came Tyrone and Armagh, who were the forerunners of the modern game while I'd better leave Meath of the '80s out as there will be a few who might put pillage and murder as part of that revolution. Still there are different ways to skin every cat.

So there have been many revolutions in football, enough to change the way the game is viewed and too occasionally elicit a response from legislators who try to steer the game in a particular way. Whether bright coaches should dictate where any code travels is a matter for another day but there is no field game which does not have a guiding hand.

Now to Donegal. There is no doubt they have progressed the game along a certain road. I have reservations about trends in Gaelic football in general but it does not mean there cannot be admiration for the way Donegal have moved football and especially the thought process that went into it.

The biggest difference between Donegal and teams who have reshaped football, with the exception of Tyrone, is that they started with defence. Most other teams let the backs look after themselves and brought in some new attacking ideas. The last decade has seen a shift with a more detailed, scientific approach to defending and Donegal have broken fresh ground in that regard.

So the day of backs and forwards taking each other on in unarmed combat is gone forever. Yet the old chant of 'let it in high' is back as the rule on the square ball has given the big full-forward a new lease of life. Maybe even more so at club level where a full-forward who has not bent to the modern gods of fitness and diet can still cause a few problems.

If Donegal's style has caused a change of thinking even at the lowest level of club football, it is because it worked. Last year their approach was more Bay of Pigs than knocking down the Berlin Wall and everyone copies a winner. The difference was that Donegal were good enough to force all other teams to play the game on their terms and nobody was able to match them. Tyrone came close and that match was the best example of loaded defences forcing a need for clinical finishing when the few chances came.

Games like that can be just as brilliant as free-flowing, open affairs as the demands on each individual are even greater than normal as every player almost takes on the opposition on their own at different times. Some sides wither under this pressure. Cork are the best example; despite enjoying a huge amount of possession against Donegal in the first half they did exactly what they set out not to do: handpass continuously across the field. In that heated atmosphere there was a loss of nerve, they became individuals fighting a team. This was a tribute to the whole Donegal side who carried out their orders with military discipline.

Kerry and Mayo both failed in that regard too but the only question that was never asked of Donegal in any of these games was how they would respond if they were behind by a few points halfway through the second half. The only conclusion that can be drawn from their performances is that they had enough class players, displaying proper leadership qualities, to suggest that they would respond positively in the event of things going wrong.

That is only speculation but by the time the league starts in a few months there will be many who will present Donegal with a new challenge. Maybe some new coach will put even greater emphasis on defence than Donegal did last year, maybe there will be an even greater emphasis on fitness or maybe some coach will decide the best way to attack is to kick the ball accurately over longer distances.

One thing for sure is that nothing will remain the same and from somewhere there will come a new Che Guevara with their own version of friendly revolution.

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