The proverb “ní neart go cur le chéile” – unity is strength, came to mind when watching Donegal warm up before their quarter-final with Kerry.
I was struck by how Jim McGuinness took part in nearly all the drills and issued his pre-match orders from such close range.
In these days of fitness gurus, runners, maoir uisce, cone bearers, and ballboys, it was refreshing to see McGuinness muck in with his troops and handle the ball in the warm up. Like so many more this time last year, I wasn’t entirely convinced by McGuinness. I thought some of the stuff he got his players to do smacked of gimmickry and pop psychology. The penny dropped in Donegal’s national league game against Kerry. Even though they took a bit of a hiding the same day, it was obvious Donegal were on a steep learning curve that was about to be negotiated with strength and with unity.
The most impressive aspect of Donegal’s play this past summer has been the relish with which they approach the tackle. Most forwards see tackling as a necessary evil and many have become quite adept at disguising their distaste for it. But Donegal players take such pride in working for each other that the turnover leading to a counter-attack is as rewarding for them as getting a score is for other forwards.
The negative consideration for Donegal has to be the reliance on Colm McFadden for scores. There is a lop-sided look to the scoring charts in the Donegal camp this year and tomorrow is a day that Michael Murphy may feel the urge to step up and register a few scores. He has caused Michael Shields quite a bit a bother in the past and it may be a duel that Donegal feel could be worth imposing on Cork again.
All week Cork have been forewarned and the signs are everywhere: The lack of genuine challengers to Cork’s forward march this season — 11 weeks since their Munster semi-final against Kerry; The testimony of players who’ve encountered the Donegal system first-hand; The lingering doubts about Cork’s defence. The form of Alan O’Connor at midfield and the persistent concern that Conor Counihan and his selection committee don’t always select the best fifteen available to them. It’s all feeding into a nervous energy amongst Cork supporters to whom I’ve been speaking this week.
Yet there was something very impressive about the way Cork went about squeezing the life out of Kildare after half time in the quarter-final. Graham Canty used his obvious physical advantage over Eoghan O’Flaherty to great effect from Alan Quirke’s kickout. Patrick Kelly tore into the game right upon his introduction. Daniel Goulding scored with his first touch, Paudie Kissane was a bundle of energy and, most strikingly, Aidan Walsh was able to bail out O’Connor and turn the tide at midfield after Darryl Flynn appeared to have hauled Kildare back.
Cork have so much more going for them too. Unlike Kerry they are hardly likely to kick the ball as often and they rarely put the leather up for grabs. Cork have the experience and the patience to probe and then to inject the pace required to find space and score.
In their league encounter Donegal got a goal after 12 seconds and it took Cork 12 minutes to get their first score- a point from Aidan Walsh. That score in March might inform Cork’s thinking tomorrow. Paul Kerrigan carried the ball a certain distance, gets held up, then at the last minute passes to Walsh who enters the line at pace, is half surprised to find himself in space and kicks a point from 30 yards out. Seeing as how Donegal don’t really concede goals that readily it might be instructive to note that Walsh’s effort is the type of point most commonly scored against Donegal. Scores against the Ulster champions don’t always come from the most obvious of sources either. Anthony Maher (along with Colm Cooper) was Kerry’s top scorer from play with two points from midfield. Against Down, Liam Doyle scored two from play and against Tyrone full-back Conor Clarke, corner back Dermot Carlin and wing back Seán O’Neill all scored in a game when there were only four other points from play.
Cork will have learnt from their spring encounter in Ballybofey you need to have two fresh players coming at pace off the shoulder of the tackled player, and these runs need to be made close enough to the goal so that kicking for a score is an option immediately after receiving the ball. Kerry found out to their cost that first half wastage (five score from 27 attacks) must be kept to a minimum. Every kick at goals counts against Donegal and, for that reason, it is crucial Cork get their best kickers within scoring range. The much maligned Paudie Kissane may not be the best defender, but proved against Kerry two years ago in Killarney, again this year in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and recently against Kildare, he is their best scoring defender if you invite him on to you.
Unlike any of the opponents faced by Donegal up to this point, Cork will have the physical conditioning to stay with them and they won’t be perturbed by the mass of humanity under the breaking ball at midfield. Dublin are the only team in the past two seasons that can make similar claims.
I don’t for a minute believe Cork will line up as selected and if there is even a hint of rain, the notion of playing Nicholas Murphy from the start is plain daft. Neil McGee will relish horsing into Murphy, but running around after Donncha O’Connor or Daniel Goulding wouldn’t appeal that much to him. For a team like Donegal who throw their bodies into every play where there is the slightest hope of breaking the ball away, a dry day would not be preferable. Cork on the other hand would welcome a dry ball with their aerial dominance becoming more pronounced as the game wears on. The fascination for neutrals ahead of tomorrow is, of course, whether or not Cork can prove that they have the capacity to think their way through the next two or three seconds when in possession. Have they got the nerve to think their way through the tackles and to clear the foliage?
Either way, expect Donegal to take Cork to places rarely explored and well outside their comfort zone tomorrow. The hidden possibilities of the modern game will unveil themselves once again. It may not be the nihilistic anti-football of last year’s semi final but the attacking football on display won’t compromise the defence on either side. It could come down to how committed the teams are to the choreography set out by their managers- to who really is a team in the truest sense of the word.
In the 1988 Seoul Olympics the Soviet Union had athletes in neither the 100 metres or 200 metres finals, yet managed to win the 4 x 100m relay gold. Both Cork and Donegal are vastly different teams for so many different reasons but they do have one thing in common: team is everything and the whole is always greater than the parts. They say a team is only as good as its bench and for that reason only- I take Cork to win.
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