Picture it: you’re in the GAA shrink’s office and a game of word association is suggested.
A list of football team names are peppered in your direction and you’ve to respond immediately with the first word that comes to mind. So what would you say?
Perceptions play such a role in the inter-county game, and don’t think for one second that teams aren’t concerned with how they’re considered.
This column knows of one inter-county manager who is keen to discover how the media can work in his favour (good luck with that!).
While Cork selector Haulie O’Neill’s comments in this newspaper at the weekend highlighted the keenness for teams to be depicted in a hue of intimidation by other teams.
Asked about how the team can be viewed as one that relies on their size more than anything, he said: “That’s a perception I’d love to have out there, that other teams were thinking we were a physical team.
“I don’t know if many teams in the country believe that. Yes, we’re tall but we wouldn’t play a brand of football I would call physical.”
Jim McGuinness, O’Neill said, is a man who knows how to create an image of his team. “He’s capable of distracting attention away from certain areas and he was capable of sowing seeds into people’s brains that if Donegal were level with you with 10 minutes to go, there was only one winner.”
For a belief like that to stick, it has to be sustained by a habit, which Donegal cultivated over the course of the last two seasons.
But then they remain a surprise package in the sense nobody saw it coming and other more established football counties either marvel or resent the quickness of their transformation.
They are also still an unknown quantity and tales of them, no matter how tall, have stood. It was some time before Joe Brolly’s “William Wallace is seven foot tall” story of Rory Kavanagh eating eight meals a day to help him bulk up was quashed.
But was Brolly lying when he went into forensic detail of the manically intense Donegal training session he witnessed in 2011?
Controlling the controllables is the mantra of all managers but McGuinness would have known how good it would have felt for his former underachievers to hear themselves being spoken and written about in grand, if exaggerated, terms.
McGuinness, let’s remind ourselves, is a qualified sports psychologist. When he was confident of the sheer hysteria in the county not getting to his players prior to last year’s All-Ireland final, he was damn sure.
Among his pieces of work in John Moores University in Liverpool was the “autobiographical writing as a healing process“. Nobody was better positioned to rehabilitate Donegal than he.
At times, Donegal are not as sophisticated as they are made out to be.
Prior to last year’s semi-final against Derry, Rory Gallagher had to inform Rory Kavanagh just minutes before throw-in that he was not starting. This after he appeared in the team photo.
But that’s not the perception in the eyes of the public or among other teams and that’s what counts.
McGuinness is the master of keeping everyone guessing. When they are looked at now with two points from three games, nobody is suggesting it’s an All-Ireland hangover, when the same charge was aimed at Dublin around this time last year.
No, it’s what has the Glenties man up his sleeve? As loquacious as he is when available, he maintains an enigmatic status. Being so geographically isolated helps in that regard, never mind now being out of the country for a good part of the week.
If somebody is close to knowing Donegal, it’s Mickey Harte. It was vital for Tyrone to win Sunday’s league game in Omagh. Harte admitted as much himself: “If you keep losing to somebody, you might get an inferiority complex and that wouldn’t be good for anybody, so it was important that we’d win for sure and probably more important for us to win than Donegal.”
But the victory was important for other reasons. In last summer’s Ulster quarter-final, Tyrone weren’t the cuter team. They were bullied and found themselves picking up as many yellow cards as Donegal despite McGuinness’ team fouling almost twice as much.
Last Sunday, they weren’t going to let Donegal exact another psychological blow against them ahead of May’s eagerly-anticipated Ulster quarter-final.
In their minds and those of everyone, Donegal are living rent-free. Should they defend their All-Ireland title, it will be one of the greatest defences in the history of the game, given where they have come from and what they have yet to go through. However, while few are talking of them right now as defenders of their crown, plenty are thinking it. Their shadow casts long.
Munster showing signs of promise
Previewing the start of the National League on RTÉ Radio, Martin McHugh took a thinly-veiled swipe at Munster football.
“You’ve Cork and Kerry in Division 1 and the other four teams in Munster — people talk about Gaelic football being strong in Munster in Division 4. There is no Ulster team in Division 4 of nine counties.”
McHugh will undoubtedly be delighted to see three of the four Munster counties in Division 4 pushing hard for promotion right now — and don’t yet dismiss Tipperary, even if the start of their campaign was poor.
Outside of Division 1, Limerick are the only team with a 100% record.
Yes, the first four spots in Division 3 may currently be filled by Ulster sides but it’s not just the northern province who are promising.
Croker effect skews scoring
The best two games of the 12 in Division 1 so far have been played in Croke Park. That’s no coincidence. The bigger playing pitch, never mind the high quality of its surface, lends itself to more scoring.
So far, Dublin have posted a total of 3-32 in their two matches there. Kildare, who they face in Croke Park this Sunday, matched their neighbours’ 2-14 total against Mayo when they beat Donegal in a hard-edged cracker of a game first day out.
When Dublin topped Division 1 after the round stages two years ago having played four games at GAA Headquarters, they accumulated 16-82, six goals more than the next best team.
20 or more point totals are the norm for winning league teams in Croke Park but do they skew aggregate scores when other pitches aren’t as conducive to picking up goals and points?
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