Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

McClean believes spirit of 2009 can boost underdogs

Putting the boot in: Terry O'Neill played a key role in stifling the Donegal attack during Antrim's win back in 2009
Putting the boot in: Terry O'Neill played a key role in stifling the Donegal attack during Antrim's win back in 2009
Andy McClean

What struck Andy McClean, once he had soaked in the reaction of the crowd, the sheer novelty of it all and had skipped underneath the tunnel in Ballybofey and across the yard into the dressing rooms, was Sean McGreevy.

Sitting there in the corner, an ice pack on his leg after he pulled his groin keeping out a shot from Conall Dunne, taken off in the first 10 minutes.

He had tended goal for a fair chunk of the 18 seasons that Antrim went without a win in Ulster until they beat Down in 2000. Nine years on, the only win he had to sustain himself was one over Cavan in 2003. So this was sweet.

"Awesome", McGreevy kept saying. Over and over again.

McClean had put in his National Service to the Saffron cause. At club level he had become almost blasé about winning Championships and Ulster titles with St Gall's, but this?

"It was a totally different feeling. We had won with St Gall's plenty of times but to win with your county, so many different players beside you and so many different fans, that was just a special feeling," explained McClean.

"Kicking on to beat Cavan in Clones was another special day, two of the highlights of my county career."

You could hardly say Antrim were fancied going into Ballybofey. They surrendered meekly in the Division Four final against Sligo a few weeks previously, sparking a change of tact from manager Liam Bradley.

He knew that Donegal manager John Joe Doherty had provided co-commentary for TG4 during their league final, so he needed to throw a dummy.

Enter Terry O'Neill. He hadn't been called up for trials or league panels, but Bradley summoned him that week.

He had been a scoring wing-forward for St Gall's, but Bradley spotted something in his coolness in possession and tactical awareness to hastily convert him into an out-and-out sweeper.

"We played a couple of challenge matches with the tactic of a sweeper. We had it in the back of our minds, we had it up our sleeve if we needed to use it," recalls O'Neill.

After Donegal wiped out Antrim's early lead, they dropped O'Neill back into the hole.

O'Neill recalls his instructions: "McFadden and Murphy were in the full-forward line. We felt they would carry a potent threat so if we played that system we had to blot out the territory in front of them.

"If they were to get the ball, they would be getting it down by the sideline or the byline; not in the scoring zone.

"That was my brief that day, cutting out the supply of ball into them and being the extra man coming out of defence with the ball."

By half time, Donegal had racked up 10 wides. At the finish, they had doubled that tally.

"We cut out an awful lot of ball through Terry," says McClean.

"In a way, we were doing what Donegal are doing now – our runners harmed them that year."

They had a half-back platform that was lightning fast; Tony Scullion, Justin Crozier and James Loughrey. Their pace unnerved Donegal and the tipping point came from raw speed.

McClean continues: "I remember the goal Tomás McCann scored – he picked the ball up about the 45 metre line and made his way in.

"I don't think I have seen a goal since like it because if the nature of defences nowadays. But we definitely did play to our strengths that day and Donegal kicked a fair few wides. That was down to the way we were playing."

When one half-back surged forward, another would drop in to cover for him. They trusted each other and made a mad dash for the finishing line.

Donegal weren't surrendering though and they narrowed it to within a point after Christy Toye scored.

Ultimately, it was Kevin O'Boyle who made the crucial play at the death, racing up from corner-back to land a long-range point.

It wasn't quite the nadir for Donegal football. That would come with heavy, demoralising Championship losses to Cork and Armagh, but it was the kind of defeat that you imagine is long behind them in the Jim McGuinness era of souped-up gameplans and masochistic training schedules.

Antrim went the other way. They have had the odd big day with Baker since – winning promotion to Division Two along with a win over Galway in the 2012 Championship – but they are coming in as real underdogs, underlined by the 15/2 odds against them.

Still, there is one thing largely overlooked. While Liam Bradley flummoxed Donegal tactically in 2009, his son Paddy is the first member of a management team to try and decode the system that he once played against, for Derry in 2012.

And in another role, he has been helping out with the Gaoth Dobhair senior footballers in Donegal club football, along with his friend Kevin Cassidy.

His expertise and experience should have been extensively mined since the Championship opener win over Fermanagh.

"When you have Michael Murphy floating on the edge of the square it's a threat to anybody," McClean points out.

"They have a lot more to offer nowadays, especially on the break with their half-backs and even their corner-backs getting forward.

"It's up to Antrim to contain that and they need to go back to 2009 to find not so much a system, but a look at different men to pick up different people, match them strength for strength there and I think individual match-ups are going to be very important."

Back in 2009, nobody gave Antrim even a puncher's chance. Why should anyone give them a shot now?

"In the Championship, nobody gives Antrim a hope anyway in any game," McClean points out, and not unreasonably.

"I would say, 'why not?' They are quite a dynamic team and they are capable of scoring goals.

"If they can go at them and show their strength that way then I think it is possible, without doubt."

In Ulster, anything is possible.

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