It was quite something to see Michael Murphy at the Irish Open Pro-Am in Ballyliffin, laughing and enjoying the company of the country’s top golfers and a few thousand avid GAA supporters ten days out from what is effectively an All-Ireland quarter-final. It wouldn’t have happened on Jim McGuinness’ watch, I can tell you that.
This little snippet is a microcosm of life as a Donegal footballer nowadays. There is an obvious parallel to be drawn between the off-field freedom to explore and that of their blistering, expressive on-field performances.
McGuinness’ feat in coaching and managing Donegal to win the
All-Ireland in 2012 was possibly the greatest triumph in Gaelic football coaching terms. McGuinness managed Donegal for four years and changed the thinking within Donegal, those players’ mentality, and how people and opponents from outside the county viewed them.
They had now become a team to be taken seriously, the party-boy image disappeared and a new professional aura oozed from every pore, all epitomised by their captain and leader Murphy, the poster boy for a new Donegal.
For all the positives from this very lucrative time under McGuinness and a pretty fruitless time under Rory Gallagher, there was a pretty damning legacy. What ensued was a litany of injuries and retirements — Karl Lacey, Neil Gallagher, Colm McFadden, Éamon McGee, and Rory Kavanagh all departed the scene, all that down to the trudge and attritional nature of their style of play, plus ferocious rigours of their training sessions and demands of their schedule.
Those seven years took their toll on Donegal. By the end of Gallagher’s reign, they looked dead behind the eyes, fed up with the safety-first approach and the regimental style of football.
Donegal’s most important decision for this team was the next choice of manager. Declan Bonner was hard to look past and not surprisingly given the job on Gallagher’s departure. I like Bonner; he always struck me as an honest, straightforward, and honourable sort of guy.
However, my worry was that he would be playing football largely in the same mould as the previous seven years as he had suggested with his time with both minors and U21s.
Contrary to my initial thoughts, Bonner has actually been the catalyst for their change in style though I believe there are a number of reasons for the change. It must be said that they have lots of frailties defensively. Their full-back line has had zero test so far and you would fear for them against Dublin. They have a very few natural bog-standard defenders. Neil McGee apart, they are all extremely comfortable, perhaps even more comfortable going forward than defending.
But most importantly of all, this team needed a change. Yes, there are a lot of new lads but the backbone of the team has been through it all.
The necessity to shout “clear”, stick those two electrodes on the chest of Donegal football, and pump that electricity through it was essential. The freedom to express and the enjoyment is now
obvious for all to see.
Having been at all Donegal’s championship games this year, they have been free-flowing and a real pleasure to watch. However, none of Cavan, Derry, Down, or Fermanagh presented any real challenge to them. They’ve had four games but have not expended any unnecessary energy, using their bench fully in each game to excellent effect.
Were it not for the cruciate injury to Patrick McBrearty, you would say their Ulster campaign was nothing short of the perfect preparation for the Super 8 series. McBrearty’s loss is huge; he was playing the football of his life and, set free of all his defensive responsibilities, he had one simple remit and that was to win the ball and get as many scores as possible (the only remit for any corner forward worth his salt).
That ability to win ball and his sheer strength will be dreadfully missed.
With him, they had a chance against Dublin. Unfortunately, without him, I don’t think they are even capable of mildly scaring them.
The perception is that Dublin are not quite at where they were last year. For me, they look capable of being even better than last year.
Arthur Ashe famously said, “You are never really playing an opponent — you are playing yourself, your own highest standards and when you reach your limits, that is the real joy.”
The Dubs have not only had to forget about outside influences but also at times they’ve had to dismiss opponents clearly not in the same vicinity as themselves as regards talent or application.
That’s a tough place to be. Nothing to pin on the dressing room wall, no pundit to stick it to or prove wrong, no underdog tag or bookies’ odds to rubbish. So everything they are doing right now is built on real substance, built on a cold, ruthless desire to improve and to achieve.
I think the Dubs, above everyone else, will embrace the Super 8s as something to get their teeth into. Home or away, I don’t believe it matters to this group. Dublin tick all the boxes: Aggressive, talented, hard-working, and with a desire to be better than everyone else.
Because the Dubs have also been untested, Donegal have no barometer for what they are coming up against. Dean Rock epitomises Dublin’s cold blood. That tone is set by Jim Gavin who is unwavering in his approach. His team and, in particular, their deadly
free-taker, mirror this and are becoming more like their manager with every game.
Luckily for onlookers, though, they regularly deliver glimpses of individual brilliance too. Donegal may be emancipated but you need more than your freedom to beat Dublin.
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