TONY MCENTEE: Why Donegal won’t win the All-Ireland

Jim McGuinness’ greatest trick is convincing the world that Donegal are invincible.

Last September by the time Mayo realised otherwise, a compound series of mistakes put the game beyond their control. They had the ability and the know-how but lacked the conviction and belief.

Mickey Harte’s Tyrone lacked the ability and conviction to best McGuinness. Indeed the match was over long before the final whistle and provided Donegal with little test. Ironically, Tyrone learned more about themselves from the outcome. Their deficiencies were exposed, allowing Harte the opportunity to turn their season around.

James McCartan is a different animal, supremely confident as a footballer and as an individual. When sharing a room with the great Jack O’Shea on Compromise Rules duty he was asked what was it like to be with a legend: “You’ll need to ask Jack,” he replied. If only he was able to instil a morsel of that confidence into his players, then they would savour the tasks ahead of them. As events transpired yesterday, Down dominated large sections of the meeting with the All-Ireland champions, played with loads of confidence and came within a few bad decisions of winning it.

The allure of Breffni Park for me was the application of the sweeper.

From open play Mark McHugh sat deep in defence, in front of Benny Coulter, manning the edge of the D where it intersects the 20m line. His task was to sweep secondary possession from direct ball, double-team whatever Down forward received initial possession within the scoring zone, be a spare man for the build-up from defence, link play to the forwards and, most interestingly, pushing up and marking his man for opposition kickouts — though not Donegal’s own kickouts. For Down kicksouts, Donegal played 15 v 15. For their own, they looked to utilise the sweeper as an outlet.

McHugh’s effect on the game was compromised by Down’s methodical and slow build-up play, plus a lack of discipline in the Donegal defence. This was a deliberate Down tactic that worked by frustrating Donegal and nearly won the match for the underdogs but for a lack of composure in front of goal.

Down played with Peter Turley as an orthodox holding centreback, assisted by either Ryan Boyle or more frequently Kevin McKernan as an extra sweeper. Turley’s role was much more clearly defined. He, along with Boyle/McKernan spread themselves equidistant across the field covering the centre closest to themselves and the nearest wing for early deliveries. In the second half Turley manned the centre more and focused his energy on shoring up the defence. His tackling was superb and his attacking runs showed many qualities of a leader.

What we should be asking is what are the benefits of a sweeper and why are so many teams now using it?

The benefits are self-evident. Crowding of defence, picking up loose runners, cover for mistakes and support play, to mention a few.

The why is more complicated.

For both Down and Donegal it masks many defensive frailties. Neither team are confident in their ability to go man-to-man in the true sense. Neither team display the confidence in the outfield players to mark the runners nor apply sufficient pressure on the kicker.

In Donegal’s case the sweeper allows runners from deep in defence to have disregard for their defensive duties and to recover when returning to their numerical position while McHugh remains in position for his own kickouts, providing additional options for primary possession or secondary break ball. And the final ‘why’ is to create space for your own forwards to work in. Unfortunately, this reason is not something that either team considered yesterday as both forward units survived on scores from free kicks or long distance efforts in the case of Colm McFadden.

This very point is the reason Down lost and the same reason Donegal simply cannot win this year’s All-Ireland.

Colm McFadden was the only man that even looked like scoring from play and he was reduced to points from 40 yards or more. David Walsh was given a man-marking role on Laverty while Leo McLoone was not himself. Patrick McBrearty was well marked and didn’t look able to find space or freedom while Michael Murphy roamed in and out when it suited. How do you win against good teams with only one forward?

However, as long as Donegal are winning they remain the team to beat. They do not look fully conditioned yet, some key players are missing and realistically they are working with about 13 players. I don’t suspect they will get the chance to go the backdoor route so the invincible tag remains for now. But if they do then so does the cloak.

McGuinness is going to stick to the plan that has taken him thus far, why should he change?

That is his power. The greatest trick he ever pulled was convincing the world he couldn’t be beaten. And like that, poof. He’s gone.


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