McGuinness' Donegal earned glory of a rare kind with masterful gameplan

McGuinness' Donegal earned glory of a rare kind with masterful gameplan

THE WONDER is not only the shock reminder that there is still great life and variety in the grand old game, but to think that only a few days ago people feared there wasn’t.

Talk that Dublin would win All-Irelands at their will for many years to come was always ridiculously premature. An advantage in cash and population does not guarantee success; if it did, England would have far more than one rugby world cup.

But predictions that Dublin would win the All-Ireland in front of us convincingly did not seem the least fanciful.

Rather, after an opening four minutes of sparkling football that made Donegal’s blanket defiance irrelevant, our only regret about our predictions was not stating Dublin’s superiority more vociferously.

We are told now that such brilliance, such relentless running and invention and deadly scoring from Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn is not sustainable for the majority of a game.

But in their best spells this year, Dublin had been suggesting the opposite. This was the way they had played in that mesmerising second half against Cork, the way they had made a 20-point mockery of their rivalry with Meath, and if there was a person not wearing a Donegal jersey who says they believed at that point that Dublin would not win, they are either lying, mad or clairvoyant.

If Dublin were not quite so blistering thereafter there was still little to concern them. Leading 0-9 to 0-4, Connolly missed a fair goal chance.

But this, too, is part of the pattern of their games. For two years, we have watched them spurn three-pointer after three-pointer, and this is always the point where the co-commentator says that they might one day live to rue such wastefulness.

It always seems a sensible comment, but then Dublin always score at least two goals and botch at least two more chances. At the time, Connolly’s miss – or Paul Durcan’s save, if you prefer – did not seem to matter. That is what two years of Dublin games have conditioned us and them to believe.

Now it is deemed, probably correctly, to have been a crucial turning point, for incredibly, it was the last goal chance Dublin would create. If Jim Gavin ever reads newspaper articles or internet forums, he might think of Connolly’s chance and how the fates align. For now, many pundits and posters have declared that Gavin – he’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naïve boy ­– is a tactical pygmy next to Jim McGuinness.

But if Connolly had been as cool as Colm McFadden, or Durcan had reacted differently, we would surely be reading of how McGuinness’ ideas are past their expiry date, how Gavin’s all-out attack and full-pitch press are the one true path to Sam Maguire.

It is worth remembering that prior to Sunday that he had overseen his team in five major competitions and won all five. It is simplistic to say that he prepares Dublin only to pour forward.

Part of their early dominance was built on stout defence, and you can press the pause button and observe more than 10 sky blue jerseys within their own 45 when the opposition attack.

Much of the narrative after these epic games revolves around the two managers, as if they are chess players who start out with material of equal value. But there is human error and psychology at play to the factor of 40 or so individuals.

And Dublin, who must have been so disconcerted to play so much good football and find themselves a point down, reacted exactly as a talented Cork team did in an identical situation against Donegal in 2012: they panicked.

It was incredible to watch: James McCarthy picking the ball from the ground, the 2010 footballer of the year missing two simple frees, five Dublin backs employing stroll rather than swarm defence on Anthony Thompson while leaving Ryan McHugh the freedom of their square.

If Gavin, praised so widely for trusting his players to apply leadership, should not be castigated too much, then there is also little limit to put on the praise owed to McGuinness.

We feared for his side beforehand for we assumed Donegal’s 14-man defence would preclude pushing up on Dublin’s kick-outs – and yet Donegal were well-organised enough to do both to great effect.

It is also no accident that they do not give the ball away cheaply, no accident that they were so good at winning their own kick-outs. It is clear from his four years in charge that McGuinness is one hell of a man to devise a gameplan.

But he is not the only coach in Ireland with a deep understanding of the game. What is at least as important is his ability to instil self-belief.

Whereas Dublin have enough good young players that you feel they would contend under any competent manager, it is near impossible to imagine Donegal winning trophies under anyone else.

It would be far too easy to revise what happened on Sunday, to suggest that Dublin were never that good anyway, to in any way detract from Donegal’s achievement.

We must strive to remember the psychological mountain that the men from the hills faced, that had men from Meath and Monaghan, not renowned as respecters of reputation, beaten before they went out.

It might have been painful for Dubs, but for the rest of us, it was enthralling to watch a team play with such calm and steely self-belief against a team that we still believe deserved to be such overwhelming favourites. It was a reminder of what can be achieved through mental strength and footballing intelligence.

They may or may not win the final but there is more than silverware. There is the challenge of applying your will to make great opponents panic, of overcoming all odds.

This epic game is about glory and with such a victory, Donegal have earned glory of a rare kind. We are the richer for witnessing it.