Donegal are a team who have gone to the well that often over the last six years, they know the depth of it to the nearest fathom.
When they’re labelled, rightly or wrongly, a tired team, is it any wonder? Since 2010, they have appeared in five Ulster finals and a pair of All-Ireland finals, winning four provincials and one Sam Maguire in 2012. This has been achieved with largely the same panel of players.
However, this only tells part of the story. It’s not necessarily about the amount of football they have played. Perhaps the games were light relief in the context of the general regime under Jim McGuinness.
To get something straight right from the off: McGuinness’s achievement in winning an All-Ireland four years ago with that particular group of players was nothing short of a miracle, in my estimation the greatest coaching performance in the history of Gaelic football.
He turned a team devoid of confidence and direction in to a slick, well-oiled machine, playing a brand of football we had never seen before — football from another planet, played by an intensely fit and focuses squad of players.
This fact, in itself, doesn’t make McGuinness great, just on a par with the top coaches in sport. But you must take into consideration where this group were at the time, their reputation preceding them, and not in a positive way. We used to call the Donegal bus the “Venga bus” due to their image as party boys, an image I’m sure was blown out of proportion at times.
The key to change was precisely that — writing a new book on and off the field. When it was first mooted they train twice a day, every day, McGuinness and the players received plenty of positive local press, the supprters and most importantly, a buy-in from county officials and Donegal business people, who were willing to back the ambitious plans.
Within two years, Donegal had annexed a highly unlikely All-Ireland. They had very talented players, but the sum of their parts was much more important. They played a style alien to most onlookers, but it worked for them. Their gifted group sacrificed their game for the greater good, which in itself was a ringing endorsement for the whole set-up.
Fast forward to 2016. Donegal still have a hugely talented squad, a manager who merits the plaudits he received for his input into the McGuinness masterplan. Rory Gallagher, as a player and manager, doesn’t lack belief in his own ability to achieve again with this Donegal squad. He has had it tough in the shadow of McGuinness.
And that legacy of that grinding regime is certainly coming back to bite. The injury toll is huge, they have a lot players breaking down game on game. Lacey, Gallagher, McHugh, McBrearty and Murphy have all suffered in recent times. For me, though it seems as much mental as physical, they seem weary, bedraggled and listless at times. Crucially, these times seem to be at significant stages of games.
The reason, I’m pretty certain, is the rigours of that same defensive system that brought them success in the first place. Rory Gallagher has tweaked a little but it has largely remained as was. I watched Donegal towards the back end of the league and and they remained committed to The System. In one way I admire their commitment to the game plan, but the Gaelic footballer inside me is pleading: Why not come out and play, enjoy the freedom of playing under no pressure, away from the scrutiny and the spotlight that goes with top level sport?
The problem Donegal have is that the system no longer suits the ageing individuals operating it. They have real problems in breaking out of defence at pace, a problem with getting enough players ahead of the ball to create enough meaningful attacking options.
Neil Gallagher and Karl Lacey have not become bad players overnight but under the stringency of the way they play it is proving more difficult to effect the game. Ryan McHugh is the one player who can play that way all day.
Not only is his conditioning superb but he has great awareness and the ability to read the game, allowing him to do his job but also get up and get crucial scores, in particular goals.
Under Gallagher, Patrick McBearty looks rejuvenated, he is one of those players who had to sacrifice his game since playing minor and senior on the same day in 2011. Nothing like scores to redefine your role to banish the scars of lengthy barren spells.
Donegal has introduced a few interesting new players this year, including Eoin McHugh, Michael Carroll and speed merchant Ciarán Gillespie, whom I managed at Dundalk IT, a player with huge potential. Their introduction, and with it pace and agility, makes you realise Donegal won’t be changing their system anytime soon.
I do think of all the teams capable of causing an upset, Donegal are right up there.
They are, however, a team that need to change the way they play, not because their blueprint isn’t something to admire, but because it has served its purpose and is now past its sell by date. The players need a new challenge to reinvent themselves, to change their identity and rejuvenate the squad.
Michael Murphy can’t play two roles, he has been a colossus. There is still plenty of life in Donegal, though not I fear under the parameters of the current game plan.
They miss Paul Durcan: He is as important as Cluxton is to Dublin. If they are to be a genuine final four factor I hope for their sake Gallagher has kept something under wraps and we’ll all be taken by surprise. If anyone needs innovation, it’s his players and supporters who would benefit most from turning a new page.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved