In ‘This is Our Year’, Declan Bogue’s now infamous account of the 2011 championship, Kevin Cassidy recalls how the precise game-plan for the semi-final clash with Dublin was only revealed to the Donegal players three hours prior to throw-in.
This time out Donegal would be bringing the defensive innovations of the last decade to their brutally logical conclusion, employing an even more radical and destructive approach to containing the opposition — putting 14 men behind the ball. According to Cassidy, nobody blinked in the meeting room.
“You never, ever question Jim. Nobody was looking at each other or anything like that; it was a case that we had believed in him all year and we were going to go with this too with everything we had.”
Jim McGuinness then told his players the game could end up with a scoreline of four points to three but that it didn’t matter as long as it was Donegal that accumulated the four points.
For the McGuinness’ system to work his players have to trust in it completely.
Despite his burgeoning reputation for bloody-minded application, unorthodox thinking and meticulous planning, the Donegal manager’s greatest achievement to date has been to earn the unquestioning devotion of his players in a county which had a reputation for taking an à la carte approach to the demands of the modern game.
In less than two years he has developed an aura around his team similar to that cultivated by the Armagh and Tyrone teams of the last decade. Of course, the aura of invincibility carefully nurtured by Armagh and Tyrone was only sealed by beating Kerry in Croke Park, and McGuinness now faces his biggest challenge.
In ‘This is Our Year’, Cassidy also claims that, had Donegal overcome Dublin last year, Kerry would have ‘struggled’ with the McGuinness system in the final. If that belief still persists in the Donegal camp, will we see a return to the ultra-conservatism of last year’s semi-final, or will McGuinness continue with the refinement of his system that we have witnessed in Ulster this season?
Either way, the Donegal manager has not yet encountered a team as well-equipped as Kerry to break down the Donegal wall. If anyone can, it’s Kerry.
The Kingdom have spent the best part of a decade adapting to the defensive evolution of the game and though those years have been pock-marked by failure, they have outlasted all the great innovators of the modern game. They continue to be the force to knock and keep knocking after all these years. To borrow again from the book of Jeremiah: “Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t”. Only Tyrone have managed it.
Tyrone may well be a shadow of the team that beat Kerry in two All-Ireland finals, but the focus and variety in Kerry’s attacks in overcoming their nemesis two weeks ago was evidence enough of the value of the experience in victory and defeat accumulated during their ten years at the top. In Limerick last Saturday there was further evidence of key players coming into serious form.
Jim McGuinness will be aware of Kerry’s potential to expose any flaws. The League in March would never be an accurate forecaster of summer form, but there were a few insights in the game in Killarney that could inform both managers’ thinking ahead of tomorrow.
Kerry will take encouragement from the amount of time both midfielders, Anthony Maher and Bryan Sheehan had to pick passes. Irrespective of the fact that Donegal were in the middle of heavy training at the time, Maher will feel that he can again kick long range points like the two he got from play. He also set up one of the goals. Sheehan kicked 1-7 from placed balls and any lapses in discipline from Donegal will have to be punished if Kerry are to prosper. One of the many reasons that Down perished against Donegal two weeks ago was their failure to convert free kicks. Donegal, too, will have parsed the playbook from that March game in Killarney and they will have noticed that Kerry have very few runners who will match the off the charts stamina of key players like Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh. The aforementioned Sheehan and Maher are vulnerable on the back-foot and even after the false bounce of three qualifier wins on the trot, there are still questions to be asked of Kerry...
How can Kerry legitimately stop the running game of McGlynn, Thompson and Bradley? Can they decode the communications that go on right throughout the match amongst the Donegal players or will the choreography just be too complicated for them to figure out? Will Kerry forwards maintain their discipline when a Donegal player steps across their intended tackle to protect the defender coming out with the ball?
These are all very real situations that Kerry players are going to be confronted with tomorrow and the fascination for many of us will centre on how they react to such situations.
Received wisdom suggests that Kingdom will lose should Donegal manage to prevent the anticipated early blitz as Dublin did last year. It has been argued Kerry, having worked too hard to find holes in the blanket, will fall to pieces down the final stretch under the sheer relentlessness of Donegal’s late onslaught.
That train of thought is based on selective highlighting of Kerry’s past failures. It ignores the fact Kerry have become an awful lot cuter and more economical than they used to be when faced with mass defence. But, crucially, it also doesn’t take into account that Kerry, of all the counties in the recent history of Gaelic football, have the capacity to improvise, to adapt and to produce moments of pure inspiration when it really matters.
Kerry people were rightly indignant when Colm Cooper’s greatness as a player was questioned these past few weeks. After all the moments of genius during the course of a decade of routine brilliance, it was suggested he could never lead from the front when the need was greatest.
The need for the Kerry captain’s leadership will rarely be greater than it will be throughout tomorrow’s tactical showdown. Even in a game of chess there is always room for a magician. I don’t anticipate a free flowing game but after the key moments unfold, I expect the Gooch to be the difference tomorrow.