Saturday 18 August 2018

Joe Brolly: Security breach reveals Donegal's secret training plans

It may only be a matter of time before opponents find out that Donegal like to hand-pass sideways and backways. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
It may only be a matter of time before opponents find out that Donegal like to hand-pass sideways and backways. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Warning. This document is classified and can only be read by those with D1 security clearance. You may also read this if you have signed a confidentiality agreement with the Donegal County Board in the last five months.

A short-term job opening arose in Belfast earlier last week. The Donegal senior squad were travelling to the city on Thursday for a three-day training camp. The confidential plan entailed training at pitch number seven at QUB's grounds at the Dub, on the upper side of the campus. They required three security personnel for the three days, to police the pitch and its surrounding woodland area. Duties included: a) stopping all vehicles that approach the perimeter of pitch seven; b) stopping all pedestrians, dog walkers, joggers and the like from being at a vantage point over the pitch at any time; c) ensure that anyone in the vicinity of the pitch was not using cameras or video equipment; d) strip-search anyone suspected to be carrying concealed cameras or recording devices. The three people hired were to be paid £50 cash-in-hand per session.

All of the above is true, save for the strip-searching bit, which I made up. Mind you, in this day and age you wouldn't be surprised.

The real surprise for me is why anyone would want to watch Donegal hand-passing over and back across the pitch. Or why the Donegal management would think anyone might want to.

It was Donegal's unlucky day. I found out about it because a kid who lives with me was offered one of the security jobs. What are the chances?

In any event, such a grave security breach is presumably a sackable offence so it will interesting to see whose head rolls. Sometimes one despairs.

In the summer of 2011 I was in Donegal with the kids for a week and we decided to go down to Letterkenny and watch Donegal senior training under Jimmy McGuinness. It was less than a fortnight before they played Dublin in that semi-final, the one where they spent 70 minutes hand-passing backwards and forwards across the pitch inside their own 45.

We walked in to St Eunan's grounds and, surprised that there was no one else there, we sat up at the back of the main stand, watching the most gruelling session I had ever seen. After two hours it was still going, the youngsters were restless and we headed off to get ice-cream without ever getting the pictures I had promised them with Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.

A few days later we were in the local shop and one of them said, "Daddy, you're in the paper."

I had been captured by the long lens of a cameraman at the session. I had intended to go to the training again that night but when I rang my contact at St Eunan's he said: "Sorry Joe, they've moved it to Ballybofey and they have security on the gate who have been instructed not to let you in."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously. Jim wasn't happy about the other night. He wasn't happy at all."

Not that the Donegal men are averse to a bit of sporting espionage themselves. One recalls, for example, the curious incident of the Killarney tree climber. Shortly before the All-Ireland final in 2014 between Donegal and Kerry, Kerry were training in Killarney and Mikey Sheehy, one of the backroom team, thought he saw a rustle in the huge tree overlooking the ground at St Finian's corner. Mikey was standing with Patrick 'The Bag' O'Sullivan, then Kerry chairman and pointed this out to him. 'The Bag' wasn't so sure, but then, isn't everyone human beside Mikey. The greatest number 13 to play the game was so sure of himself that he asked Eddie Walsh, bottle carrier and local Garda, and kitman Niall 'Botty' O'Callaghan to drive over and check the tree for trespassers.

In deference to Mikey, the sceptical duo duly drove around and stood squinting at the tree for a few minutes, before concluding Mikey's imagination was playing up. They were no sooner back in the park than Mikey was over to them again, insisting he could still see someone at the top of the tree. Back they went again, this time leaving the car and going on foot. Eddie, being highly trained in the art of the cunning arrest, circled around the tree and approached from the rear with great stealth. Sure enough, after a minute or two, the tree rustled and after a moment, the unmistakeable figure of a man came into view, 40 foot up in the branches.

"Come down from that tree," said Eddie, "You are trespassing on private property."

The man never moved. "I am a member of the Garda Siochána," said Eddie, "and if you do not come down from that tree now I will call for back-up."

A moment later, the men looked on stunned as a grown man fell out of the foliage on to the ground, landing close to their feet.

"Where are you from?" said Eddie. "Dublin" said the man, in a broad, west Donegal accent. He refused to answer any further questions and, there being no criminal offence identified, they let him go. Alas, in the tumble from the tree, his bank card had dropped out of his pocket, and when the intruder had gone, the Kerry men discovered it. Turns out he and Jimmy McGuinness were at each other's weddings. A truly amazing coincidence.

Espionage is common practice in other sports. This is partly because they have all begun to believe the world revolves around them. In that obsessive, unhealthy micro-society they eventually become separated from reality.

In August 2016, a sophisticated listening device was discovered in the All Blacks' team room in their hotel ahead of their Test match against Australia. The device - the sort used by law enforcement and spying agencies - had been planted in a chair in the team's meeting room in the Double Bay Intercontinental Sydney Hotel. Donegal and other teams would do well to take the precautions taken by the All Blacks, who have employed security advisors to check for breaches - including listening devices - since 2004.

They duly uncovered the state-of-the-art bug during a security sweep of the room. However, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Steve Tew said the opposition was likely to have recorded at least one team meeting. Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry said that although he was shocked, "there had been plenty of spying in the past with videoing of training or taking notes. This sort of thing has happened in world rugby before, let's be frank about that." Funny thing, the All Blacks stuffed them anyway.

The Killarney espionage plot shows the problem with the old ways. If Mikey Sheehy weren't so eagle-eyed, the spy would never have been spotted. It is presumably only by the mercy of God that Kerry won that All-Ireland final after their entire game plan had been exposed. In the circumstances, it is only a matter of time before Donegal and other serious teams are investing in sniffer dogs, electronic early-warning intruder systems, signal-blocking satellites, stealth and cloaking technology, and bug-sweeping devices. It would also be prudent to maintain 24-hour surveillance on the movements, phones, smart devices and computers of all players, their families, and backroom teams.

Otherwise, it's only a matter of time before opponents find out that Donegal like to hand-pass sideways and backwards.

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