Friday 19 January 2018

Joe Brolly: Jim McGuinness is taking the piss with his praise of Donegal

Joe Brolly

A favourite song of the West Ham supporters is ‘No Surrender, No Surrender, No Surrender to the IRA’. When they attacked the Manchester United bus on the way into Upton Park on Tuesday night, you could clearly hear them singing it from outside the pub where they were spilling onto the street.

I lived in East Ham one summer, in a tenement building called Teasel Way. The lifts were always broken because the drug dealers didn’t want the cops to catch them by surprise. So, the young lookouts hanging around the ground floor entrance made a fuss and by the time the cops got to the ninth floor there was nothing to be seen. I was labouring with a crew run by a Galway man by the name of Flaherty, excavating basements in Chelsea. We started at seven and because I was the last man in, I was in the basement with the kango, breaking up the ground then shovelling it onto a plywood platform at chest height, where an ex-Irish army man shovelled it up onto a wheelbarrow at ground level. So it went, hour after hour. It was the only time in my life I was really tired. Often I fell asleep on the Tube on the way home, waking up at the end of the line, covered in dust and muck and too tired to care. I was never mugged because I looked like a mugger.

I lived with a crowd of paddies. There were seven of us in a one-bedroomed flat. We sat around in the summer’s evenings, drinking tins of Carlsberg Special Brew or Kestrel lager, then throwing the empties out our seventh floor window into the courtyard below. This was a spectator sport. We would listen to hear what happened the empty tin. Usually, it echoed off the tarmac. Sometimes, you’d hear a roar of anger. It was a wild place. We used to drink at the weekends in a bar called The Greyhound. One Saturday, a row broke out and a man was stabbed to death. 

I was on the Tube on another Saturday when Millwall were coming to Upton Park to play the Hammers in the FA Cup. It meant nothing to me, so sitting there with my St Canice’s GFC gearbag was no big deal. As we came to the stop before the ground, the wall of the carriage started rumbling. Millwall fans beating the windows with their fists. The train stopped and they rumbled into the carriage. A young policeman wearing one of those tall helmets stepped in with them. “You fucking smell pork lads?” The Millwall fans crowded round him, sniffing his face and body. Just as the doors closed, he stepped out. Jesus, I thought, we’re dead.

The GAA bag was under my seat now and I had my legs covering it as best I could. “Awroight sunshine,” said a big man in a leather jacket, leering into my face. I nodded. He grabbed the fluorescent light and pulled it down. It exploded, sending black dust everywhere. He looked at his hands, covered in black dust, then rubbed them on his face. “Look lads” he shouted, “I’m a fucking nigger.” His mates began slapping his face, chanting “Wog Wog Wog Wog.” At the next stop, out they rumbled, singing a catchy little number along the lines of “We are Millwall, super Millwall, no-one likes us, We will kill you.” I breathed out and reflected that it was good to be alive.

The only way to beat Dublin this summer might be to hijack their bus on the way to Croke Park. Or their two buses, given the size of their entourage.

Maybe their opponents could invite some Millwall fans over in advance to give their supporters’ clubs some pointers. There are only a few contenders. Monaghan can compete in Ulster but not beyond. (Q. What is the difference between Conor McManus and a black taxi? A. A black taxi only carries seven.) In the Ulster final last year he was absolutely dogged off the ball by Neil McGee and submerged by the yellow hordes when the ball came near, but still scored six points, including three miraculous efforts from play. Against Tyrone in the quarter-final, when his team-mates were knee deep in the quick-drying cement of Tyrone’s defence, he zipped over the surface, kicking points from everywhere. But they were well beaten. How Donegal could be doing with him.

Jim McGuinness is enjoying turning the screw on Rory Gallagher. Once inseparable, they no longer speak. Jim wrote last week: “I feel Donegal have the wherewithal to beat Dublin this summer. Donegal have the best pound for pound players in the province.” He described his disappointment at their league defeat to Monaghan this year when they were seven up and still lost and goes back to 2014 when Donegal surged into the All-Ireland final after a mediocre league. He wrote: “I don’t see a Paddy McBrearty in the Tyrone team,” which is mischievous in the extreme, given that Jim never picked Paddy to start throughout his tenure, using him as an impact sub. Jim has never believed Paddy is able to sustain a performance over 70 minutes and I believe he is right about that.

The real problem for Donegal is that Colm McFadden has never been replaced. He was critical to their rise under McGuinness: a scoring machine, working off scraps, turning dross to gold. His efficiency was staggering, allowing Michael Murphy to drift outfield and the team to defend as deep as they wished. His frequent goals and points kept the troops’ morale high and motivated them to defend furiously.

They have other problems. Karl Lacey’s time is up and it was sad to see him being humiliated against the Dubs in the league semi-final. Karl was a truly great defender. Long before Jim McGuinness transformed our notions of defending, Karl was taking on the game’s best forwards man to man and trouncing them. One night in Ballybofey in a memorable qualifier, he totally humbled Paddy Bradley, before moving across to his brother Eoin and repeating the dose. No. McBrearty is not McFadden and the lynchpins of the team, bar Murphy, are past their best.

There is a more fundamental point. Donegal’s success was never founded on individual brilliance. Rather, it was based on the most brilliant ambush in the history of the game. More accurately, it was an ambush of the game itself, subverting all its norms. Which brings me to Donegal’s real problem. They won because no-one else knew what they were doing. Even when they began to see it, it was too late to do anything about it. But now, the others have caught up. Tyrone, Dublin, Kerry and Monaghan all defend better. Mayo have now smashed them up twice in big games in Croke Park. The Dubs have been toying with them. Before the second half in their recent league semi-final, Michael Murphy got into the middle of the team huddle and could be seen furiously exhorting them to go on and win the game. Instead, they got absolutely humped. I have never seen a Donegal team look so forlorn as at that final whistle. Jim is taking the piss.

Kerry’s strengths and weaknesses are well known now. They cannot match Dublin’s strength and athleticism over 70 minutes. They cannot score goals against them. Donaghy is drowned in arms and bodies when a high one is kicked to the square. And they have no plan to draw Cian O’Sullivan away from his sweeping role so they cannot handpass their way through. Paul Murphy at No 11 is most certainly not the answer. Eamonn Fitzmaurice is a shrewd plotter but this is one plot that he is losing.

If the championship runs according to plan, Mayo will meet Dublin in the final. They are the only team that can physically compete with the Dubs. They are also the only team that can score frequently against them. Up until now, their strategy and tactics have been poor, so they have inevitably lost. Dublin attack better so in a conventional match Mayo will lose.

Last season, Mayo began experimenting with a sweeper system when it was too late, so it didn’t work properly come the crunch and they conceded stupid goals against Dublin to throw away a winning position. Tony McEntee has never believed in sweepers, but for Mayo’s sake he better have converted to the cult of Jim. The bottom line is, if they have a Colm Cavanagh or a Cian O’Sullivan dug into the edge of the D like a tick on a dog, they can win an All-Ireland.

They also need to get Keith Higgins out of corner-back, where his function is to create players of the year and All Stars. James O’Donoghue, Paddy Andrews, Bernard Brogan, etc. Instead, he would be a brilliant wing-forward, foraging back and driving forward. The final component is to create goals and in this regard, they cannot allow Aidan O’Shea to be left isolated on the edge of the square where he will — as happened last year — be submerged.

Finally, there is Tyrone. They are minus the great forward that is virtually obligatory to win an All-Ireland. But that is not the only way. The Derry team I played on were the dominant side in Ireland for three or four years and we did not have a Peter Canavan. What we had was a superb collective. Tyrone’s approach makes it very difficult to deal with them. Their entire team is comfortable in front of goal. When corner-back Aidan McCrory found himself on the 21-yard line against Derry in the recent league game, he gave a dummy, stepped inside and calmly passed the ball to the corner of the net. For four years they have suffered from a safety first approach, content to tap the ball over the bar. This does not win All-Irelands. They have mastered the art of preventing goals. It is time to start scoring them.

I was stopped at traffic lights last week and saw a Tyrone player walking past so gave him the bird. He laughed and came over. I rolled the window down. “You boys getting ready for Dublin?” I said. He smiled. “We are indeed Joe. Stop goals. Score goals.” The lights changed and I drove on, reflecting that we will just have to grin and bear it next weekend when the Celtic Park stand is filled with the Tyrone mob chanting, “There’s No London in Tyrone.”

Having taken everything into consideration, I think hijacking the Dublin bus is the best option.

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