IN THE AFTERMATH of Donegal’s stunning 0-16 to 1-11 victory over Cork in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final, people got so overcome talking about their system and their manager, that they forgot one rather important detail – in at least 12 of the 15 personal duels, the Donegal players proved themselves more composed on the ball, more athletic and more hungry than their Cork counterparts.
Donegal had better players all over the field – and that’s why they won. People seem unable even to see that most glaring of points, so lets talk for a moment about what makes a great player. The greatest player I have ever shared a field with is Padraic Joyce.
And what set Padraic Joyce apart, more so even than Bryan Cullen, Seanie Johnston, Michael Meehan, Diarmuid Connolly, or anyone else I ever played with or against, was his composure. When he was on the ball he knew that there were 29 other players on the field who were going to have to react to what he did. He NEVER hurried.
I grew up playing with Diarmaid Blake, who was Galway’s centre-back for a large part of the last decade, and from an early age I knew he was going to play for his county and I wasn’t… because he had composure. He didn’t cough up possession when tackled, he was able to break tackles; he was able to rise above what the other team was trying to do to him.
The actual skills of the game are shared by hundreds, if not thousands of players around the country. What is supposed to set you apart is your ability to play your game as if what the opposition is doing doesn’t matter. And in that key facet of the game, Cork came up short.
For illustration – Pearse O’Neill’s first touch of the day came when he was surrounded by three or four Donegal players. He ended up swinging his boot wildly at the ball, aiming it in the general direction of Ciaran Sheehan, but the ball overshot its intended recipient by 20 yards and the ball ran harmlessly over the sideline.
In the first half Rory Kavanagh received the ball in heavy traffic, was being mercilessly tackled by three Cork players, and just when the ref seemed likely to blow it up for over-carrying he was able to slip a ball to Leo McLoone and Donegal were away. David Walsh had kicked a point five seconds later.
Or take as another example Frank McGlynn’s point at the start of the second half, when he dispossessed a Cork player, ran 30 yards with the ball, and then steadied himself before slotting the ball over the bar with his left foot from a narrow angle. Compare that to Graham Canty taking a shot while off-balance a few minutes later that just went 40 yards up in the air, or Daniel Goulding taking on multiple shots in the second half to no effect.
This is not to say that Cork didn’t do a lot of things right – they hit some of the best scores they’ve ever hit in Croke Park. I think if people are looking for ways of beating Donegal and ‘their system’ then they could probably learn a lot from how Cork went about it. Get in behind them down the flanks (as Ciaran Sheehan did for their fourth point), and take points from distance, as Paul Kerrigan and Aidan Walsh did. But keeping your composure is the key.
Tomas O Se said last week that you can’t train yourself for a match against Donegal – you have to experience it. The one note of caution I would sound from a Donegal perspective is that Dublin have been there, last year. They are in a better position than Cork or Kerry to try and steel themselves for what’s coming, but admittedly they have to beat Mayo first.
This Week Murph Was – sitting on the couch watching the game for the first time all year with Newstalk’s live coverage having finished up for the summer. And watching the TV coverage is always instructive, if only to illustrate that there’s a generation gap developing in Gaelic Football, which is very distressing for me. Unlike politics, of the parish pump or national variety, football used to be something you could discuss with your elders on a level playing field.
I’m starting to think that may not be the case for much longer. I hope Gaelic footballers of a previous era follow their counterparts in rugby and embrace the new levels of professionalism and fitness that current players now show, rather than pining for more innocent times. It doesn’t do them any favours, particularly when the TV footage of their time reveals a few rather uncomfortable home truths.