Against Donegal, every time you lose the ball, you die a little

SOME of us who spent days of indulgence and dissipation in the mid-90s watching films will be familiar with the scene: The opening sequence in Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins and as the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising emerge from the smoke to surrender, a disappointed Collins (Liam Neeson) turns to his comrade Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) and says that next time next time, “we won’t play by their rules, Harry. We’ll invent our own.”

As we reflect on the achievements of Mayo and Donegal during this weird and wonderful summer of football, whose penultimate game was a blood and bandage affair ending in a score-line of 0-19 to 0-16, it is perhaps inevitable that we should be reminded once again of those words.

The ingenious thing about what James Horan and Jim McGuinness have achieved these past two seasons is not that they have re-invented the rules on how to win matches but that they have done so while managing to keep at arm’s length, the type of outrage that came with the last real dam-burst moment in Gaelic football — the emergence of Tyrone in 2003.

Once we accepted midway through this summer that the game wasn’t on a diabolical course it became easier to digest, to understand and, dare I say it, to enjoy. There is an awful lot for both teams and supporters to be positive about ahead of tomorrow’s All-Ireland football final.

Apart from being a personal vindication for Jim McGuinness’s and Rory Gallagher’s painstaking work on the training ground, the manner in which Donegal have revolutionised the counter-attack is fascinating to watch.

There is so much more though: The improvement and the greater sophistication in Paul Durcan’s kickout, the way in which Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh have brought back the traditional art of midfield play where catching the ball actually leads to an attack as opposed to punishment for over carrying. Then there’s the absolute discipline in the tackle that sees Donegal concede so few scoreable frees, the rehabilitation of Colm McFadden from figure of scorn and derision to potential player of the year and the sense that Michael Murphy has one really big game in him after only six competitive outings so far this year.

Murphy is emblematic of how far Donegal have come. Listening to the same voice, locking on to a singular ambition and merging previously disparate and mutinous elements puts Murphy and his teammates just 70 minutes away from greatness. But they are not perfect and Mayo will know this.

They will know that Ciarán Sheehan, a player of sublime talent in a disrupted summer, caused them more anxious moments than they would have wished for in the semi-final last month. Apart from his three points from play, Sheehan set up 1-1 in the last few minutes for Colm O Neill and it was he too, supplied the bullet for O’Neill’s earlier effort off the crossbar that could have altered the course of the game.

O’Neill ended up with 1-3 from play on limited enough supply when those around him were either misfiring or simply not in the game.

The point here is that had a quality kicker like Sheehan a deeper reserve of fitness and had he been able to get on the ball more (as Alan Dillon surely will), had Cork played a more expansive, more varied and more instinctive game (as Mayo surely will) and had Cork’s inside line tackled more (as Mayo’s surely will) then perhaps Donegal’s passage to the final might not have been as unhindered as it was from half-time onwards.

There are other reasons for Mayo to be hopeful. They have the players to go with the Donegal counter-attacks if they ensnare and turn over the Mayo attack. If you were to start the clock at the point the opposition loses the ball in the tackle and stop it once Donegal kick a score at the other end, you would see why the turnover is such an critical part of the Donegal blueprint.

In the 11th minute against Cork, Mark McHugh forces the turnover away back the field. Within 18 seconds Colm McFadden is kicking Donegal’s third point. McHugh turned over Donnchadh O’Connor in the 34th minute and within 22 seconds he had fisted his sixth point of a championship campaign spent mostly 100 yards from the opposition goal. Early in the second half a further McHugh counter-attack took 20 seconds before McFadden pointed and perhaps most impressively of all, an unforced error by Aidan Walsh in the 41st minute took just 14 seconds for Frank McGlynn to punish with a fantastic left legged point into Hill 16.

It has been said that ‘every time you lose, you die a little’, but certainly against Donegal, every time you lose the ball, your chances of success die away slowly and surely.

For Mayo to survive they’re going to have to avoid losing the ball in contact at all costs. They have a better chance of doing this if the likes of Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Ger Cafferkey, Colm Boyle and Donal Vaughan run out of defence as aggressively as they have been doing up to now but their shocking collapse between the 50th and the 70th minute of their semi-final against Dublin cannot and must not ever again be replicated.

Of the reasons been proffered for the collapse, some (Kevin McLoughlin’s injury coinciding with Dublin’s dominance) are unlikely to re-occur, others (Aidan O’Shea and Barry Moran tiring) are rectifiable with three weeks preparation.

For that reason and some others, it’s difficult to see Mayo winning.

Who, for example, on the Mayo team is going to kick the type of long-range points required from outside the defensive screen? Is Cillian O’Connor, for all his talent and composure, going to get six or seven scoreable frees again? On a day when Mayo’s forwards are likely to be stifled, can Mayo’s backs add to the 0-6 they’ve scored so far in this year’s championship? Can their forward division stop Donegal’s defenders adding to the 1-12 (1-18 if you count McHugh) they’ve scored thus far? Is Maurice Deegan likely to be as sympathetic as Joe McQuillan was to their disruptive game?

The one final intangible is the mindset coming down the home stretch in an All Ireland final. Much has been made of the fact that (barring a draw) we’re going to have a fifth different winner in as many years.

In each of those finals we’ve seen different reactions from teams as the finishing line loomed. Kerry and Cork teams have withdrawn into their shells both in winning and losing. Tyrone and Dublin have been liberated by the exhilaration and freedom of having nothing left to lose and Down have been left with little more than regret for what might have been.

Part of the intrigue ahead of any final is that the historical baggage can’t be compared on a like-for-like basis. Every final is different and every player reacts differently. Despite the bad karma about disputed homecoming venues, levied tickets, unhappy clubs and untrammelled enthusiasm, Donegal have seemed impervious all year to outside influences. Their tradition in finals is of an impeccable 100% success. Mayo have enough baggage in finals to carry them around Ireland a few times over but this time it appears that the change effected by James Horan and his backroom staff is for real.

It is quite clear that both teams have arrived at this point by inventing their own rules and as such, the opening exchanges between them could be fiery. When the time comes for finishing things out, however, I expect Donegal to stand tall.

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