McGuinness will ensure Donegal truly test Tyrone

THERE are two reasons why I particularly enjoy meeting Jim McGuinness.

The first relates to the way he appears to be morphing into Daniel Day Lewis. When chatting to him, you’re in the company of the multi-Oscar winner while having a good yarn about football at the same time.

But it’s the conversations about football which hold the greatest appeal. McGuinness really knows his stuff. When he talks, I listen. When I bumped into Jim and Rory Gallagher at half-time in Clones on Sunday, the Glenties man was his usual friendly self, but he was also on guard.

We still talked about the match. Or rather, I did most of the talking, and Jim did most of the listening. But he still made a few revealing comments.

When I mentioned that the Armagh full-back line wasn’t receiving much protection, Jim couldn’t disguise his surprise at the Orchard men’s game plan.

“And they are still playing with five men up front a lot of the time,” he said.

That’s all he said, but I know Jim’s philosophy on football well enough to appreciate that it wasn’t a compliment. McGuinness would have looked at Armagh with a certain amount of disbelief. There is no way he would ever leave Neil McGee and Karl Lacey home alone against Eoin Bradley and Mark Lynch.

Pat Spillane who watches games to be entertained would love teams like Armagh. They revel in the old romance of six defenders against six forwards. But men like McGuinness, who are in the business of winning games, shudder at such adventure. And when McGuinness looks at Derry’s score of 3-14, it will reinforce his conviction that there is no room for such dreamy idealism in today’s game.

Viewers who drooled over Derry’s long-range passing and attacking play will not experience the same entertainment when Donegal and Tyrone meet Sunday. Both teams will defend in the modern way. Space will be at a premium.

In many respects, Tyrone will be meeting a mirror image. Jim McGuinness has learned much of what he knows from studying Mickey Harte’s teams.

Late last year, I had a much longer conversation with McGuinness. He had spent the previous night analysing a DVD of the All-Ireland quarter-final between Tyrone and Dublin.

At that time, a debate was still doing the rounds about the tactics Tyrone employed against the Dubs. One school of thought argued that Tyrone should not have persisted with short kick-outs. Others believed the Red Hands lost because of substitutions. I asked McGuinness for his opinion. He declared that Tyrone’s short kick-outs were a resounding success. After providing the relevant statistics, he pointed to the speed the Red Hands ferried the ball from their 20-metre line into the heart of Dublin’s attack. For McGuinness, Tyrone were still the benchmark.

So, why did they lose? They kicked too many wides and Dublin’s ultra-aggressive and often-rash tackling went unpunished. Listening to Jim, I was struck by his absolute authority. No opinion. Just answers.

It was easy to see how McGuinness would command the respect of a changing room. Players can spot a phoney and know the real thing when they see it. McGuinness’s team have only been beaten once this year.

In a recent interview, Kevin Cassidy revealed why he was relishing the chance of playing Tyrone. Since coming under McGuinness’s tactical education, Cassidy now appreciates Donegal and Tyrone were playing different games in previous encounters. “The last couple of times we played Tyrone we just went out and played them,” said Cassidy. “We were hoping our footballing ability would take us through but we were coming up against a team with a system, a strategy, and tactics — we were just playing off the cuff.

“But we have learned from the couple of hammerings that Tyrone gave us. We were just going out and playing our three full-backs against three full-forwards, our three half-backs against three half-forwards.”

All will change on Sunday. When they met in 2007, Brian Dooher and Kevin Hughes ran amok. Tyrone pinpointed a lack of pace in the Donegal team and exposed them. Dooher scored 0-5 and Hughes should have scored 5-0.

Four years later and it’s difficult to see the 36-year-old Dooher charging through any Donegal holes. Hughes will definitely not enjoy freedom against Donegal’s athletic midfield pairing of Rory Kavanagh and Kevin Rafferty.

If anything, McGuinness will have an easier job spotting areas that can be exploited in the Tyrone team. The Tyrone full-back line coughed up easy frees against Monaghan while a few players were nowhere near their peak. But don’t write them off. Tyrone are expecting Donegal to come at them. If Donegal can establish a lead, they will set up a 12-man defence, and try to hit Tyrone on the counter-attack.

No prizes for guessing what Tyrone have been doing in conditioned games in training.

They know what awaits them. But after easy games against Antrim and Cavan, the Donegal men are coming up against an entirely different beast. For many purists, Donegal were one of the last custodians of a more innocent game. They have mourned loud and hard at McGuinness’s ultra-defensive tactics. But judging by events in Clones at the weekend, it is innocent teams that deserve our real pity.

If Donegal beat Tyrone, they will need every cunning trick that Jim McGuinness can give them.

Contact: p.heaney@irishnews.ie

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