Joe Kernan: Mind games part of the plan for Donegal
When Down blazed a trail for Ulster by winning back to back All Ireland titles in 1960 and ’61, they did so with a team of supremely gifted players, a manager who acted as a jack of all trades and the support of a county board for whom the Corinthian spirit was absolutely sacrosanct.
This is all in rather sharp contrast to what will pertain over the course of the next two Sundays when this year’s All Ireland semi-finals will be staged.
For a start, there won’t be 90,000-odd fans in Croke Park, some of them perched in precarious positions on the roofs of the stands, many wedged together like sheep in a pen and others so close to the touchline that they could quite easily have reached out and shaken hands with a player – or perhaps have done something rather worse.
All Ireland semi-finals are no longer guaranteed sell-outs nor are they occasions which are the sole domain of the players themselves.
When Donegal and Cork lock horns on Sunday at Headquarters, the 30 players who start the match will represent a fraction of the number of personnel from both counties who will have an input, however trivial it may be, into what is a particularly intriguing pairing.
Seated in the stand will be the 15-plus players representing the remainder of each squad and patrolling the touchline will be the respective managers, Jim McGuinness and Conor Counihan, with their assistants close by.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Very much involved, but not conspicuously visible, will be a small army of people ranging from dieticians to statisticians and from doctors to water-carriers.
You can take it too that among this number will be at least two and maybe even more individuals who could ultimately wield a huge influence on just how the game pans out.
These are sports psychologists, the people in whom so many managers put implicit faith in their bid to get the very best from their players.
When they first made their presence felt in the GAA arena, they spawned cynicism and even ridicule.
But, when it became clear that some team managers were very happy to indicate the role that such professionals played in their teams’ success, what initially became a grudging respect eventually morphed into warm admiration.
Donegal boss McGuinness may have his rather complex defensive mechanism perfected by now and his Cork counterpart Counihan has been maximising the physical powers and searing pace that are contained in his side, but all these attributes count for little if they are not complemented by the most essential ingredient of all — belief.
There is more than a touch of irony in the fact that for some time a gigantic eye-catching advertising banner for a drinks company that dominated one area of Croke Park contained just one word – BELIEVE.
There is no other word in the English dictionary that will underpin the build-up of Donegal, Cork, Mayo and Dublin to quite the same extent as this seven-letter clarion call.
Sports psychologists are past masters at pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses in the psyche of individual players and applying their skills to ensure that they are at a perfect mental pitch for match day.
Dublin manager Pat Gilroy has perhaps the best back-up team of all in terms of quality personnel but this high-flying businessman, for all his considerable acumen in the tough world of commerce, still recognises the absolute importance of the role of a sports psychologist. What does that tell you?
If an analysis were to be undertaken of this year’s provincial and All Ireland championships, it would reveal that quite a number of teams won matches in injury-time – matches indeed that they clearly looked like losing.
They did not win these games by accident. They won them because they were mentally strong – think Donegal against Kerry, Laois against Meath and Tipperary against Antrim.
It’s never over until the fat lady sings and this message has been reinforced more than ever this year.
While I expect the fat lady to be in full voice over the course of the next two Sundays, we all know that her opening aria is not what will matter, it’s the significance that will be attached to her final notes.
We have four teams, all of whom stand 70-plus minutes away from an All Ireland final, each buoyed by diverse reasons for wishing to reach that destination.
Donegal because they want to show that provincial glory does nothing to sate their appetites, Cork because they want to prove themselves a great team rather than just a good team, Mayo because they want to end a horrific series of Croke Park nightmares in meaningful matches and Dublin because back to back All Ireland wins would see their players endowed with legendary status.
Just, indeed, as those Down players such as Paddy Doherty, James McCartan, Kevin Mussen, Dan McCartan and Sean O’Neill were when they scaled unprecedented heights five decades ago — and, would you believe, there wasn’t a sports psychologist in sight.