The night Chelsea defeated Barcelona in the Champions’ League semi-final second leg, Jim McGuinness watched on TV from his home in Creeslough with a grin on his face as Roberto Di Matteo’s unorthodox tactics unfolded.
Chelsea pulled off one of the most effective strokes in club football history. By showing extreme discipline and faith in their system, they utterly frustrated the European champions before drawing blood.
They forced Barcelona to play in front of them, won possession and scampered upfield with decisive breaks, none so clinical as the injury-time forage that concluded with Fernando Torres rounding Victor Valdes to strike the final nail in Barcelona’s coffin.
But whereas Di Matteo was praised from the heavens for showing the astuteness to derive such tactics, McGuinness’ strategies were leaving GAA analysts fuming.
"There are people who go to The Hague for war crimes — I tell you this, some of the coaches nowadays should be up for crimes against Gaelic football," fumed RTÉ pundit Pat Spillane.
Critics disregarded the fact a Gaelic football manager must effectively tailor his tactics to cater for the players whom he has available, while success in soccer can have a direct correlation with how deep a manager can dip his fingers into a Russian billionaire’s wallet. Besides the obvious monetary differences, there are also significant philosophical diversities. McGuinness, seen by many as a revolutionary, was far from universally accepted by traditionalists.
"You see it in soccer but in Gaelic games it ruffles a few feathers," McGuinness said of his defensive approach. "The reality is, every game in the world is moving and evolving. To be at the centre of that storm, well, it was something we just had to deal with."
While the knives were out following that 0-8 to 0-6 loss against the eventual champions, one promise McGuinness did make was to continue evolving. For all the mystique that surrounds him, he places a huge demand on his players to do the simple things and to do them right. When he was in charge of the Donegal U21s, his observation on sport shaved the meat down to the bare bone.
"When you don’t have the ball, you must do all you can to get it back," he said in 2010. "And when you have it you have to make sure you do as much as you can with it. It’s as simple as that."
Peter McGinley from Killybegs was McGuinness’s number two that season. The U21 job was offered to McGuinness as a consolatory gesture after being overlooked for the senior post for a second time. But he moulded a team with a belief and a purpose, winning Ulster and almost an All-Ireland.
"It’s the time, the thought and research he puts into it," McGinley says. "Then, you play the percentages. Jim has a really good knowledge of all sports and knows what makes people tick. He’s a lot of experience from working with different teams."
Donegal’s seniors, the 2012 version, are not a team metamorphosed from last year. They are the same outfit, just further down the road. This newfound confidence, as well as another year of intense strength and conditioning, meant the players were more willing to try more expansive strategies. A synergy developed. "If we stagnated and we were just doing what we did last year, I don’t think it would be good enough," McGuinness said. "You are either moving backwards or forwards. Nothing is neutral and for us it is very important to be moving forward."
Last season in their six championship outings, Donegal posted 7-59, an average of 13.33 points per game. At the other end, an almost watertight defence saw only 1-54 scored against it, a miserable standard of 9.5 points.
This term, Donegal have scored 6-87, 17.5 points a match, while the opposition has grasped 3-63, equating to 12 per outing.
While Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden were seen as the traditional scoring threats, Donegal have more strings to their bow. Eleven different players scored from play in the Ulster final against Down and forwards like Ryan Bradley and Mark McHugh commonly act as defenders, while Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson constantly pop up with scores.
If there was one soundbyte to signify this alteration in approach, it came in the 72nd minute against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Donegal had just seen a six-point lead whittled down to one and had lost a succession of kick-outs. But when Paul Durcan’s clearance broke to Rory Kavanagh, who pirouetted, Lacey was already breaking. Kavanagh fed the ball into his path and Lacey, who had taken a gamble, scored the insurance point.
Donegal’s tactics this term recall another of McGuinness’s sporting loves — basketball. Manus Brennan coached McGuinness on the court between the years 1986 and 1990 back in Glenties Comprehensive.
"See what Jim’s doing now? I thought it was impossible," Brennan says. "In basketball, defensively you can either mark man-to-man or mark the zone. Man-to-man is how Gaelic football used to work, while the zonal marking, where you cover the scoring area, is what Jim is doing. It can work in basketball as you’ve 10 players, five of whom are on the court. In Gaelic football, it’s a huge pitch with 15. He employed the zonal defence last year to lay the foundations but has now brought it onto a new level with the offensive side — the fast breaks forward, which is another principal of basketball, you see when the opponents’ attack breaks down."
Anthony Gorman was player-manager of Finn Harps in 2005 and 2006 before acting as assistant to John Robertson at Derry City in 2007. He worked with McGuinness at both north-western soccer clubs.
Gorman believes another facet of Donegal’s attacks is the ability to create space to accommodate those breaks. At an FAI coaching gathering last November, Gorman learned Pat Gilroy’s Dublin forwards were being taken for sessions by soccer coaches.
"Dublin were very bright with constant movement, one-twos and dummy runs, which can make space," Gorman said. "Donegal can do similar things. Players like Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy are bright enough to drag one, maybe two markers, out of the way and create the space for people like Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn.
"After being hard to break down, pressing in your own half, they break like lightening in huge numbers. Manchester United have been the masters of counter-attacking but nobody calls them defensive.
"I wouldn’t say Jim has taken all his philosophies from soccer but there are lots of little things. When I saw Frank McGlynn storming through for the goal in the Ulster final, it was like something you would see a good team doing in the Champions League."