Is Jim McGuinness Donegal Football’s Special One

Piece Written for An Fear Rua, 16 May 2011.

Puke football or defence turned into a fine art? That is the question we should be asking after Donegal’s latest exhibition of the black art of blanket defence. Rather than condemn it, is it not possible to admire such a terrible and gruesome tactical creation as a work of genius.

The end justifies the means in championship football, and with a first win in Ulster since 2007, Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher won’t have been dripping tears into their cornflakes this morning.

The wet day, greasy pitch and their players’ mastery of the tactical plan they set out to execute would have made for breakfast smiles all round. The players talked afterwards about knowing exactly what they had to do. That’s the sign of good management.

During the week Baker Bradley tried to get a rise out of Donegal by suggesting their brand of play was Puke Football. Yawn yawn. For Baker to borrow the language of depression from Pat Spillane is bad enough. But his own Antrim team are hardly a swashbuckling outfit. Baker’s known to pull a man or two back. And let’s be honest. He has to.

Donegal always had an intriguing combination of ball players, the likes of Hegarty, Toye and co, aligned with raw-boned big hoors from the hills in the style of Anthony Molloy. A succession of managers seemed to struggle to get the best out of them.

The slightest hint of success seems to send them reaching for a pint glass. Failure likewise, and thereafter the men scatter to the four corners of the county tails between their legs. McGuinness played an artful role earlier in the season constantly pleading injuries and missing players, deflecting attention on to himself as his team progressed. He’s no slouch.

Earlier, during the league I ventured along to Celtic Park to watch Donegal and Derry in the league. It was a dank oul Saturday night and I was quietly intrigued by what I saw. Donegal had already beaten Tyrone by swamping their half forward line. Tyrone had enjoyed ten minutes of dominance, racing away with a few scores. And then they were just stopped. Dead. The Donegal Swamp opened up and sucked them in.

At Celtic Park it became obvious that this was no accident. We’re used to seeing a sweeper pitch up in defence these days. Donegal had two. Sean Leo McGoldrick was Derry’s centre forward and the Eoghan Rua man simply couldn’t get the room to play his normal game.

To get any meaningful ball he would have had to play fifteen metres deeper. And that would have nullified his influence even more. When he did get the ball he was shackled by Karl Lacey. If he escaped him there were two further ‘defenders’ stationed between the half forward line and the full forward line. When Donegal got the ball back, as they frequently did they rushed forward attacking at pace.

To be fair Derry did trouble them by booming in high balls early days, one of which led directly to a goal. But otherwise Donegal smothered them.

The winning of that game wasn’t this two man sweeper system. The moment that broke the game open was when Donegal’s own highball in was fielded by Micheal Murphy who really is a force of nature. He scorched Kevin McCloy and Barry McGoldrick before hitting an explosive shot into the top corner. Twas as good a goal as I have seen. It rebounded off the stanchion out the field faster than it went in.

Myself and a few of the lads left Celtic Park ruminating on this new Donegal Catenaccio.

It made me think of soccer where the fashion these days is for the holding midfielder or two. Two banks of four as they say. Or in Mourinho’s case with Inter last year, banks of four, five and one. That was effective. Against Barcelona and a man down, it was still effective. That’s good coaching.

On Sunday as Antrim attacked late in the game, Donegal went man to man in the half forward line and had two or three boys lined up in front of the full back line and three more man to man in the full back line. Familiar?

There were three in midfield, often including full forward Micheal Murphy who was able to win ball and dictate things at his own speed. When they attacked they went forward at pace. They had the new lad McBrearty holding a very wide position attacking from there, and the likes of Ryan Bradley and Mc Hugh breaking from deep carrying the ball in.

Jose Mourinho talks about the moments in the game when the opposition lose balance and that is when his players must recover the ball. In gaelic football there is no rule that says scoring must be sustained evenly over the seventy minutes. Is it possible to pick your moment?

If you can absorb the punches, tire the opposition and attack in short bursts and score in clusters, is that such a bad thing? If planned it is quite clever. Audacious even. But in every game the opposition has periods of dominance especially in the possession-fixated sport of modern gaelic football. Let them have the ball, if they’re going to and fro across the pitch, they’re winding down the clock as well as the energy reserves.

It is the scores on the board at the end of seventy plus minutes that counts. Not their frequency during the game. Yet pundits are obsessed with boring oul mantras like ‘Donegal went twenty five minutes without scoring.’ If they did and during that time Antrim punched themselves to a standstill, then all the better.

Gaelic football may not be getting better. Every year the pundits brand Ulster football as terrible to watch. But for the likes of myself, it has an absorbing fascination.

I’ll hazard the guess there’s nothing in Jim McGuinness’s arrangement with the Donegal county board that says he has to entertain. Or please O’Rourke and Spillane. Or you and I for that matter. For years Donegal played nice football. And won nothing. As Brad Gilbert the author of the famous tome Winning Ugly said: “always remember, it’s better to win ugly than to lose pretty.’

Gilbert’s philosophy was simple. He broke winning ugly down into three simple steps:

1 Recognize your opportunity
2 Analyze your options and
3 Capitalize on the opportunity using the best option.

I don’t know if Jose Mourinho or Jim McGuinness have ever met Brad Gilbert. But they have at least one thing in common, and it’s not just having the same initials.

Is McGuinness the Donegal Special One? We’ll see this summer.

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