Declan Bogue: Donegal’s craft and graft a joy to watch
Last week I made myself comfortable on the sofa as the Republic of Ireland players nervously trod onto the Poznan pitch for what they must have known, even then, would be a licking from the Spaniards.
“Can Ireland win this?” asked herself.
“More chance of Seanie Johnston lifting Sam Maguire for Cavan”, I said helpfully, before re-adjusting my response given that it would mean very little to her; “No. Ireland will be lucky to see the ball. The Spanish just keep it and hold onto it and the other team get frustrated and worn down and can't stick the pressure.”
“Oh. Like Donegal, then?” she asked.
Yes. Just like Donegal in fact. What a brilliant sporting comparison.
After their dismantling of Derry last weekend, it seems that Donegal are placing no limits on themselves, so therefore neither should we. A simple example of this is while Derry went for a weekend's training in Johnstown House to lock down their gameplan, Donegal spent almost a week at the same venue.
In an amateur game, Jim McGuinness has managed to cultivate his panel into a group of obsessives who crave hard word. It's like having 30 Kieran McGeeneys in your squad and when you have that appetite and that drive, it surpasses reputations or the natural order of where Donegal should be.
One of the more irritating phrases used in match reports is how teams 'feel out' each other in the opening stages of any match. A player will never be fresher in a match than in the first ten minutes. If a message or style of play has been coached into him, that's when he is most likely to be faithful to the instruction.
Taking the first ten minutes of the match in Ballybofey and breaking it down in plays helps us understand what Donegal were clearly aiming to do, in contrast to an unsure opposition.
Michael Murphy was an injury doubt but in that opening period he was on the ball six times. He handpassed twice, and kicked the ball three times. Paddy Bradley is Derry's captain and a similar inspirational figure for his own side, but he never touched the ball in the same time.
Another huge performer for Donegal was Neil Gallagher. He made two interceptions, handpassed twice and kicked the ball four times. His direct opponent was Joe Diver, who was the most involved Derry man, but in his six possessions he handpassed short four times, lost the ball in possession and kicked a free away.
Donegal kicked the ball thirteen times in total. They may have lost four of them, but at least there was a purpose to their play and they were moving it upfield quickly. Derry only kicked it six times, losing it twice. Instead, they hand-passed the ball a staggering 31 times, a practise that Joe Brolly terms as his ‘weekly punishment' when he goes along with his father to watch their county.
After five minutes, only four Derry men kicked the football. Three of these went to Donegal hands, with Mark McHugh and Gallagher collecting. By the same stage, every Donegal player had got their hands on the ball, bar Leo McLoone. The pattern of the game was already in place at this stage.
The position and role that has changed most on the field is that of goalkeeper. Paul Durcan's input to the game was vastly different to Barry Gillis'.
In the first ten minutes, Gillis boomed four kickouts straight down the middle. Michael Friel caught one of them, Ryan Bradley caught another, and they were even on the break-ball count. 50% of the goalkeeper's plays should not go to the opposition.
For Donegal kickouts, Durcan would charge to the ball before altering his shape and
pinging it out to the wing, where a player, mainly Michael Murphy, would drift out to collect it uncontested. It wasn't as if John Brennan was surprised by the tactic either, when he said after the match; “In the first half, Donegal had four kickouts out this wing. That’s the sort of thing we had talked about, it was going to happen, and he picked out his man.”
Donegal can win an All-Ireland. Without a doubt. Whenever the pre-season rankings are listed, Kildare always weigh in without ever acquiring the habit of winning. They would kill for Donegal's confidence right now.
The team to stop them though, are licking their lips. For the first time in a decade, Tyrone enter an Ulster Championship match as underdogs. Last year, Donegal had a gameplan for Tyrone. They even had a plan for when the heat was turned up and the Red Hands wanted to get under their skin, by telling the other player, ‘Not today.'
Tyrone players had grown comfortable with success and in the weeks leading up to that encounter had played it down as just another game. Once they realised they were in a real game it was almost too late.
Yet it still took a goal in the last few minutes to seal it for Donegal, with the result completely in the balance.
Now, the roles are reversed. Donegal are favourites. Tyrone have something to prove.
It makes that fixture on June 30th unmissable.