PADDY HEANEY: From Russia to Donegal with love (and efficiency)

Like the Soviets, McGuinness is first and foremost a utilitarian. His sole concern lies with how systems work, not look.

I’m beginning to suspect that Jim McGuinness must have a bit of Russian blood in him.

His team certainly looks like something that was designed and engineered in the old Soviet Union. I say this as a compliment because there was much to admire about the way the Communists organised themselves.

Back in my student days, I got a taste of life behind the Iron Curtain when I inter-railed through Eastern Europe. Although Communism had collapsed, many of the structures and systems were still in place. On the night we rolled into Prague, we had no accommodation booked, so we accepted an offer from a complete stranger to stay at his B&B.

But this was a B&B with a difference. It was two-bedroom flat in a concrete metropolis. One huge block of stone sat beside another. Jutting into the skyline with military uniformity, cement castles stretched into the horizon for as far as the eye could see. Grey buildings. Grey skies. No grass. No trees. It was grim.

The next morning we packed our bags and headed for the city centre. It was rush hour. The queue for the bus was enormous, but so was the bus. A few minutes later, we were dropped off at a vast but nondescript underground station. Not long after that, we were in downtown Prague.

If Prague was Dublin, then we had been billeted in Swords, but the journey took less than half-an-hour. Everything about the trip was utterly functional.

Tickets had to be purchased before getting on the bus and train, so there was zero delay. Passengers punched their own tickets once they boarded.

In the West, we were repeatedly informed that Communists spent their lives in queues. But not when they travelled. When it came to self-check in, they were 20 years ahead of us.

A bit like the ingenious Russian who designed that system, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness sat down and scrupulously studied how football can be played with maximum efficiency.

He has examined every aspect, paying particular attention to the moments in matches when teams leave themselves vulnerable to attack. Like the Soviets, Jim is first and foremost a utilitarian. His sole concern lies with how systems work, not look. He doesn’t see the need for a lick of paint.

By now, the results of Jim’s academic research are obvious. He has worked out that the most effective way to defend is with a ‘human curtain’ of 12 or 13 men.

More importantly, he has devised a way of attacking that doesn’t compromise his defence.

When Donegal run the ball, the wall stays in place. The same applies when they direct long kicked passes to Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy. Although it appears a riskier strategy, the screen is always in situ and waiting for counter-attacks.

Going into Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final, we all knew how Donegal were going to set themselves up. The big question was how Kerry would respond. As the kingpins of football, we expected ‘the Kingdom’ to respond with chutzpah.

It was reminiscent of the sporting battles that took place during the Olympiads held during the Cold War. If Donegal were the USSR — cerebral, controlled and choreographed — then the Kingdom were the USA. Their glamour, confidence and scope for individual brilliance would surely derail the Donegal machine.

And in Declan O’Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper, Kerry had their very own ‘Dream Team’.

To beat Donegal, the Kingdom had to play with the confidence of a superpower. They had to be bold and brash. They should have pushed a forward onto Mark McHugh. They should have kicked the ball to Kieran Donaghy, and kept kicking it to him.

Instead, Kerry made the critical mistake of trying to beat Donegal at their own game. That’s like trying to beat the Russians at chess. It’s like invading Stalingrad during the winter. It’s just not a good idea.

From very early in the contest, it was obvious that the game was being played on Donegal’s terms. Having been trained and schooled like Eastern Bloc gymnasts, Donegal knew they only had to execute the various routines which they can now perform blind-folded.

Of course, there are those who will look at Donegal and shake their heads. It has not gone unnoticed that many Kildare fans were cheering for Kerry, a county with 36 All-Ireland titles. Donegal have one.

For the Lilywhite supporters, the Ulster champions are the sporting equivalent of those monstrous concrete tower-blocks. They would argue that football should be about adventure and self-expression, and sport should inject our lives with splashes of colour.

Equally, many others will watch Donegal’s selflessness and their collective commitment to McGuinness’s ideology.

For them, Donegal is like the Soviet public transport system — clever, practical and utterly efficient, it takes people to their chosen destination in a short space of time. And McGuinness’s masterplan is certainly fulfilling that function for Donegal.

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