Friday 23 February 2018

Martin Breheny: Handpass rule is the real enemy, and not McGuinness

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

SO, what exactly did Jim McGuinness do wrong? A storm of criticism has blown his way all summer and it was upgraded to tornado category last Sunday. Indeed, if you were to heed the indignant remarks of commentators and phone-in callers, you might believe that McGuinness had parachuted a spade-carrying regiment into Croke Park on Saturday night for the purpose of digging trenches in the lush surface.

Actually, he did nothing to even disrupt a snoozing pigeon. Instead, he set up the Donegal team in a manner which he thought gave them the best chance of reaching the All-Ireland final for the first time in 19 years.

In the end, Donegal didn't make it after failing narrowly to Dublin. Still, they completed the season as Ulster champions, returned to Division 1 and came very close to reaching the All-Ireland final.

Donegal also created a record for defensive excellence, conceding an average of just nine points per game in six championship outings.

Antrim, Tyrone, Derry, Kildare and Dublin all failed to score a goal against them, leaving Michael Brennan's late effort for Cavan as the only time that Paul Durcan saw the ball in his net all summer.

Donegal's security rating was never previously achieved by any county in the championship, but instead of being credited with bringing something different to the tactical table, McGuinness is being classified as a corrupting influence.

Admittedly, much of the blather has come from TV and radio panellists, drawn almost exclusively from All-Ireland winners or regular runners-up.

If you're from the likes of Wicklow, Carlow, Louth, Longford, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Antrim, Fermanagh and several other counties too, your opinions don't count.

However talented you may have been as a player and however insightful you may now be, your opinions are irrelevant compared to the strident certainty of an All-Ireland 'personality'. It's a case of celebrity over cerebral.

However, it does influence the agenda which, in the case of Donegal and McGuinness, is ridiculously negative.

Let's check where McGuinness started when he took over as manager. Donegal hadn't won an Ulster championship game since 2007 and were in Division 2.

He would have noted that on their departure days from the championship over recent years, they conceded 2-14 (Armagh 2010), 1-27 (Cork 2009), 0-16 (Monaghan 2008) and 2-12 (Monaghan 2007). Clearly, Donegal were leaking too much so he set about overhauling their defensive strategy.

The proof of the remarkable transformation has been evident all summer. Granted, Donegal's style doesn't make for pretty viewing, but it's breaking no rule.

It should be, but since the GAA doesn't give a damn that Gaelic football has changed into Gaelic handball, how dare anybody criticise a manager when he structures his team to use the existing rules to suit his particular panel.

McGuinness deserves credit, not cheap-shot nonsense claiming that a Donegal win would have demeaned the All-Ireland final and that Dublin's success was a victory for football. Dublin were set a challenge, expertly constructed within existing rules, yet couldn't figure out a way to score from open play for an hour.

That's scarcely a monument to creativity, but then Dublin didn't overdose on adventure either, leaving two, and occasionally three, sentries to watch Colm McFadden who, incidentally, had a chance to score a goal just after half-time which would probably have won the game for Donegal.

Those who want McGuinness tried for crimes against Gaelic football should ask themselves this: did his strategy produce a better year for Donegal than would have been the case had he retained their more orthodox style? On the basis of their performances over many years, the answer is a resounding yes.

Presumably, he will now try to move Donegal's game on as a more creative force. This year's approach took them a considerable distance, but needs further refinement to develop further. McGuinness will attempt that from a solid base as Ulster champions and All-Ireland semi-finalists.

As for his critics, they have the wrong targets. Instead of castigating a talented young manager who had the courage to try something different, they should concentrate on the GAA's failure to address the destructive force that is the handpass in its present unlimited form.

It has been ruining Gaelic football for a long time and, while Donegal applied it to a new level this year, it's ridiculous to denounce them for advancing something that most other counties are using to a large degree anyway.

It's like blaming the mouse who is cutest at avoiding the mousetrap.

Irish Independent

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