You are the manager of an Ulster county. Your summer is over, but you are determined to do better next year. What should you do?
In the grand tradition of the GAA, most managers will not try to come up with anything too original. Instead, they will study the three northern teams left in the All-Ireland series and see if they can spot any trends.
Donegal, Monaghan and Armagh have all managed to reach the last 12. Why have they succeeded where the others have failed? The following patterns have been identified.
Be big. Be bad. It works.
Show me a team of light, skilful ball players and I’ll show you a team that’s been knocked out of the championship.
By this stage of the summer, it’s abundantly clear that when it comes to tackling — pretty much anything goes. Pulling, trailing and slapping are all quite permissible. The body wrap is also increasingly popular. Of course, legal tackles can be used too, but it’s not a pre-requisite.
When you think of Donegal, Monaghan and Armagh, what images are conjured in your mind? I see human blockades. I see powerful footballers who defend with their bodies. I see players whose superb conditioning enables them to keep playing after absorbing punishing hits. To succeed, the modern footballer must be able to stop an opponent in his tracks. That requires strength.
The three remaining Ulster teams place a huge emphasis on weight training. The Armagh players based in Dublin are not allowed to train in the gym on their own. They must travel to Armagh where their sessions are supervised.
Donegal’s work-ethic has been well documented and the evidence of their gym work is clearly visible. Four years ago, Paddy McGrath was a compact corner-back. McGrath now looks like a small tank.
One of Malachy O’Rourke’s shrewdest moves was the recruitment of Ryan Porter, the man once described by Ryan McMenamin as the “best coach in Ireland”. Monaghan have their limitations, but in terms of toughness, they have few equals.
Avoid club football
The Derry team that lined out against Donegal in the first round of the Ulster championship featured Dermot McBride, Emmet McGuckin, Patsy Bradley, Benny Heron and Gerard O’Kane.
Yet, when Derry met Longford in the first round of the qualifiers, none of the aforementioned quintet was included in the starting 15. Why? Because all five got injured playing for their clubs. Substitutes Ryan Bell and Carlus McWilliams also picked up knocks.
It wouldn’t have happened in Armagh. The day after Derry lost to Longford, the Orchard County met Monaghan in the semi-final of the Ulster championship. Prior to that fixture, Armagh’s county players had played in one of the previous 11 club matches.
Jim McGuinness makes no secret about his stance on club football. After reviewing what went wrong last year, he concluded that club commitments played a key role in Donegal’s downward spiral.
This year, McGuinness has taken no chances. For starters, he persuaded the county board to postpone the club championship until Donegal are knocked out of the All-Ireland series. Since then, McGuinness has continued to tinker with the schedule.
When the Donegal players returned from a week-long training camp in Portugal, they were supposed to play in a round of club fixtures on Good Friday. McGuinness objected and all but one of those games were postponed.
Mickey Harte needs no reminding of the perils of club football. His nephew Peter suffered a broken wrist while playing in a club match that took place a week before Tyrone lost to Armagh.
Defend, defend, defend
Michael Murphy is one of the most outrageously gifted full-forwards in the country. Yet, in Sunday’s provincial decider, Murphy spent most of the game at left half-back. Yes, that’s right, one of the most talented forwards in the country was deployed as an auxiliary defender.
There is method in McGuinness’s tactics. By using Murphy as a defender, it allowed Paddy McGrath, the left half-back, to play as an extra sweeper. The four-man unit of McGrath, Frank Glynn and the McGee brothers nullified the threat of Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes.
When a team like Donegal is prepared to sacrifice Michael Murphy’s attacking talent, it underlines the huge value that McGuinness places on defence. McGuinness’s record in Ulster reads: Played 13, Won 12, Lost 1.
Armagh and Monaghan are ahead of the game. They’re already aping Donegal’s system.
Create a persecution complex
Angered at the suspensions which followed their bust-up with Cavan, Armagh have gone to their rooms, slammed the door, and declared that they’re never talking to anyone ever again. The media stitched them up and the GAA hates them. It’s not true, but Armagh are in the last 12 so they’ll not be breaking their silence any time soon.
A bit of paranoia is good for a healthy changing room. In the wake of his team’s third Ulster title in four years, McGuinness hailed the result as the “best victory we have had”.
Why did the outcome mean so much to Jim? The Donegal manager told us. He said: “When your character is questioned, it is a very important thing for any person in any walk of life. Our character was questioned, and the only way to sort that out was to go back and try and win the province again.”
It’s emotive stuff. And it makes great reading. But is it actually correct? Let’s look at the facts.
Beaten in last year’s Ulster final, a tired Donegal side struggled past Laois before they were completely dismantled by Mayo.
While Donegal secured promotion from Division 2, they didn’t exactly set the world alight. Meath drew with them in Ballyshannon. Down beat them in Newry. If Donegal weren’t regarded as genuine contenders this year, it most certainly wasn’t a reflection on the character of their players. The doubts surrounding Donegal centred on their ability and the suspicion that the competition had caught up with them.
By this stage the recipe for success in next year’s championship should be pretty obvious. Get big men, the badder the better, and make them even stronger. Encourage them to defend as often as possible. Discourage them from playing for their clubs. And remind them regularly that everybody hates them.
2015: I can’t wait.
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