GAA

 

Celebrating Mediocrity is Anathema to McGuinness

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By John O’Hara

Jim McGuinness’ increasingly insightful articles in the Irish Times have been a massive hit with the GAA fraternity throughout the country. This week’s article focused on the easy wins for Dublin and Kerry in their quarter-final ties and Jim has created a little bit of controversy with his comments about Fermanagh GAA fans. Even Fermanagh players like Sean Quigley and Tomas Corrigan have lambasted the former Donegal manager for his comments

He noted that Fermanagh fans were over-joyed with their team’s performance in the Croke Park encounter with Dublin, despite losing by eight points. He was appalled at the reaction of the players and the fans.

I stayed in the stadium after Dublin had left and I was looking down at the pitch and the Fermanagh boys came back out and they were hugging their family and friends and the scene was one of joy. And that spooked me because they had been well beaten in an All-Ireland quarter-final.”

He questioned the attitude of people applauding an eight point defeat and people were quick to admonish him for criticising fans that knew they were going to get beat but came to support their team nonetheless. People were highly critical of his analysis, saying that Fermanagh knew they would be beaten and everyone was just happy at their performance. The romantic in people saw this as a good news story, a tale of the underdog not quite triumphing, but going home with their heads held high, but Jim McGuinness is not a romantic, Jim is a born winner.

I was torn between being happy for the Fermanagh fans, who have had little to cheer about in recent years and the logic behind McGuinnness’ article. Reading the article reminded me of the Republic of Ireland game in 2000 away to Holland, where they played out a 2-2 draw. The players and management were jumping around at the final whistle, celebrating the point they had earned, while one Roy Maurice Keane stormed off the pitch, with a face like thunder, appalled at how his side had thrown away a 2-0 lead. Keane’s entire career in the green of Ireland was spent trying to convince others that second best was not good enough, that if you settle for mediocrity, that’s what you’ll get. McGuinness and Keane are cut from the same cloth. Keane suffered the wrath of Irish fans in the 2012 European Championships when he criticised the fans for singing even though the team were 4-0 down against Spain, saying that that type of attitude did not help the Irish cause.

Again, the romantic will argue that there is something honourable in backing your team, when the chips are down and hope is all but lost. The likes of Keane and McGuinness did not achieve success by being a romantic, it is their one dimensional, tunnel vision approach to their chosen sports that have made them such a success. Keane, as the angry, ferocious teenager who went to Nottingham Forest to prove himself to the world, while McGuinness inherited a team of party animals, deemed to be a lost cause and instilled a belief so strong that they did the unthinkable and won an all-Ireland. Not only did McGuinness change the mind-set of the players but he changed the mind-set of the entire county and forced people to refuse mediocrity.

‘Commit, Focus, Believe, Achieve.’ Those four words are the cornerstone of McGuinness’ many public speeches and it’s clear from it that no amount of dedication will yield success unless you believe in yourself. This is what he was trying to convey with his article. Fermanagh never believed they could challenge Dublin, therefore they were never going to win. Some critics have called McGuinness a hypocrite, saying that Donegal went out with a negative attitude, trying to stop the other team playing, rather than going out to be a better team. This over-played argument just doesn’t stand up. The aim of the game is to win and the best manager utilises his best assets in order to win games. Jose Mourinho does it, Alex Ferguson did it and McGuinness won Donegal an All-Ireland after a twenty year gap with it.

Donegal fans will remember the various drubbings they received throughout the noughties, as Armagh, Dublin, Tyrone and most painfully, Cork slaughtered them in various stages throughout the summer. These defeats were demoralising but as they continued, Donegal fans began to accept them. It got to the stage where they were happy with a quarter final and a day out in Croke Park, just like the Erne followers last Sunday.

Fermanagh fans who were incensed at McGuinness’ comments should also note that when McGuinness took over Donegal in 2011, they had just been mauled by Armagh in a qualifier in Crossmaglen and their Ulster record had been abysmal in the years before that. They have now contested the last five Ulster Finals, winning three of them. McGuinness wasn’t being critical to be nasty, he was being critical to highlight that you need to aim higher and not accept a moral victory as a marker for success. If Donegal lose on Saturday to Mayo, you can be sure the Donegal fans will not be celebrating or that the Donegal players will be hugging their families. McGuinness has changed the psyche of the Donegal players and its people.

A few critics I’ve met didn’t even bother to read the whole article, instead choosing to focus on the out of context sound bytes that paint McGuinness as some kind of pantomime villain. He spoke about the value of coaching and that players’ ability is very often the result of good coaching and not just ability. He pointed out that his club, Glenties never had a senior player until he joined the panel in 1992 and now they have representatives at every level and challenge in the senior championship every year. There is only one reason for this turn around and it’s coaching and better quality coaching. He is telling weaker counties that Kerry and Dublin players are not born as better players, but they are better because of the tradition of coaching and the investment in youth structures within the county. The premise of his article was that counties need to stop feeling sorry for themselves and put changes in place that will see better players coming through.

Even looking at his own personal life and the journey he has taken and it gives you a picture of a man driven to succeed. He left school without an education, went back as an adult, was stuck with the ‘eternal student’ tag throughout his twenties, before going on to become one of the most influential GAA managers of all time. Not content with that, he took a role with Glasgow Celtic as a psychologist to the youth players and now travels with the senior team, wherever they go. Still not content, the Glenties man is doing his coaching badges for soccer. Could it be possible that an all-Ireland winning manager goes on to manage a professional football team?

One last thing that Fermanagh fans and players should remember when discussing this article and this is borne from experience as a Donegal man; when McGuinness speaks, you listen.

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Donegal to upset odds and beat Mayo

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By John O’Hara

On Saturday evening at 6 p.m. Donegal will do battle with Mayo for the third time in four years. The last two battles have been evenly split, but Donegal’s win in 2012 yielded the Sam Maguire, while Mayo have been on fruitless search for the promised land for the past 54 years. The second encounter saw Mayo rip apart the reigning champions in the quarter-final of 2013, so Saturday’s duel promises to be a mouth-watering clash, which could ignite this lacklustre championship campaign.

The bookies will be siding heavily with Mayo, given their rout of Sligo in uncompromising fashion in the provincial final, but some analysts are pointing to the fact that Mayo have yet to be tested in their two games so far in this championship. Donegal on the other hand are facing into their sixth competitive championship match, after coming through the gruelling Ulster Championship as runners up to Monaghan. On Saturday, we will find out which is the bigger advantage, being tested regularly or being fresh for battle. The bookies are going with the latter, but Donegal supporters will be hoping that the former wins out.

Mayo’s biggest threat this year has been the unstoppable Aidan O’Shea, who has relished his transformation to a free-scoring full forward. His destruction of the Sligo defence was at times, breath-taking but the naivety of the Sligo defence will not be replicated on Saturday. If fit, Eamon McGee will be the man given the task of marshalling the big Breaffy man and it is a task that he will need to perform, if Donegal are to come out on top. One criticism of O’Shea at full-forward is that he tries to steam-roll through defences, which he may find difficult against Donegal, who will have two sweepers deployed in around the scoring zone.

Cillian O’Connor and Andy Moran, who will join O’Shea in the full forward line will offer significant threats of their own, but Rory Gallagher will be hopeful that Neil McGee and Paddy McGrath can contain the duo. Mayo’s forwards have yet to face the type of defensive intensity that Donegal will be looking to bring on Saturday.

Midfield is probably the biggest concern for Donegal, with Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons both on form this season. Gallagher opted not to start Martin McElhinney against Galway, with reports after the match indicating that he had not trained in the week leading up to the game. The introduction of the St Michael’s man and the switch of Murphy to full-forward sparked the catalyst for Donegal’s second half performance and Rory Gallagher will be hopeful that he can start McElhinney at midfield, who played well after his introduction. He does, however, need to reassess his shot selection, with some poor efforts on Saturday, that he should not have been taking on. Neil Gallagher, who continues to get better with age, will need to be at the top of his game to combat the threat of the older O’Shea brother, who was also rampant against Sligo.

Eamon Doherty, who struggled against Galway will probably lose his place to either the returning Karl Lacey or to Anthony Thompson, who showed well in the second half, with his trademark forays into opposition territory, unnoticed. Frank McGlynn, arguably Donegal’s most consistent performer this year will be pivotal to Donegal’s transition from defence to attack and if he can find his rhythm, he could exploit the attacking nature of this Mayo side. Ryan McHugh had his performance of the championship so far against Galway and his running will be key to Donegal’s quick counter-attacking style.

The half-forward line is Donegal’s most changeable, with Hugh McFadden, Martin O’Reilly, Mark McHugh, Odhran MacNiallis, Christy Toye and Colm McFadden all drifting in and out of those positions. MacNiallis, who won man of the match last weekend, with some classy scores may not get the same time and space against Mayo and may need to be prepared for a more physical encounter. Colm McFadden was simply superb last week and proved many of the doubters wrong with his finest game in a Donegal jersey since the 2012 final. His new role as the team’s playmaker-in-chief suits the aging Creeslough man, whose laser like left foot set up all three Donegal goals last weekend. Leo McLoone, who has re-joined the panel may find himself with a bigger role on Saturday, as Donegal try to increase their physicality to give them an extra edge in attack, something that was missing against Monaghan in the Ulster Final. Christy Toye will, more than likely, play the role of the impact sub, which he did to perfection on Saturday and the strength from the bench will be key as the match unfolds. Gallagher could decide to throw McLoone into battle from the start and sacrifice O’Reilly, utilising the strength of the Glenties’ captain.

The news on the injury front looks promising, but following last week’s bizarre saga over the fitness of Michael Murphy, it is not clear what it truth and what is mind games, but if Donegal have a fit Lacey and Eamon McGee, this tie will be a lot tighter than some people are predicting.

And to the full-forward line, where we could see Murphy and McBrearty playing as the inside two from the beginning of the game, which should give the Mayo full back line a few sleepless nights. If both players are operating at full throttle, they will be a handful for Keith Higgins and co. Murphy’s cameo at full-forward last week epitomised why he is seen as one of the game’s greatest players, with a sublime catch in mid-air, before splitting the posts with ease, before he turned to provider, knocking the ball into the path of Ryan McHugh, whose goal sealed the win for Donegal.

Murphy and McBrearty’s performances will decided the outcome of this encounter. If they play to their full potential, Donegal can win this tie. If Mayo can come up with a plan to neutralise their threat, Mayo will go on to face Dublin in the semi-final.

Big games need big players and these are the days that the likes of Michael Murphy lives for. People forget that two months ago, Donegal were being talked up as potential all-Ireland winners. Their performance in the Ulster Final was poor and they had poor spells against Galway, but Donegal are still a top side, with enough in their locker to overcome Mayo.

Verdict: Completely biased but Donegal by the narrowest of margins

Beat the bookie: First goal: Frank McGlynn

 

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Comprehensive win but questions remain

by John O’Hara (1st August 2015)

Despite a few first half scares, Donegal achieved the comprehensive win that Rory Gallagher was looking for in their ten point win over Galway in the final round of the qualifiers.

The losing Ulster finalists showed their class in the second half, with stellar performances from Odhran McNeilis and Ryan McHugh. Colm McFadden also proved the doubters wrong with a fine contribution both on the scoreboard and as Donegal’s chief playmaker.

However, question marks remain over this side, with some wayward shooting coming to the fore, just like it did against Monaghan in the Ulster final a fortnight ago. Martin McElhinney, Neil Gallagher and Ryan McHugh were guilty of squandering chances throughout the game, and this will not be good enough against their next opponents.

Another major worry for the Donegal backroom team is the injury sustained by Eamonn McGee in the second half yesterday. It would seem likely that if the Gweedore man were fit, he would be the man tasked with the job of marshalling the in-form Aidan O’Shea. His brother Neil, who also shone on Saturday, will be given the role of shadowing Cillian O’Connor so it is vital that Eamonn is fully fit, if Donegal have any hope of reaching the last four.

One of the major positives to be taken from Saturday’s game is the energy shown by the squad, which was brought into question in the Ulster Final. It is clear that the players were hurting at the defeat and they were on a mission to prove a point. Michael Murphy provided some breath taking moments with fielding of the highest order, while also playing the unselfish role of provider with a brilliant assist for Ryan McHugh’s goal.

Patrick McBrearty again showed flashes of brilliance, despite repeated question marks over his fitness, which will be a major worry before next week’s game. In fact, Gallagher’s biggest threat is not the green and red of Mayo, but the fitness of his key players. With Lacey unlikely to start, he can’t afford to lose any more of his trusted lieutenants.

He will, however, be buoyed by the performances of Hugh McFadden and Eamonn Doherty yesterday, who both came in following the Ulster final defeat. McFadden looked lively and saw plenty of action, contributing two first half scores. Leo McLoone seems to be also edging from a peripheral player, following his return, to a key member of the team. His strength and ball carrying ability will be needed to break down the Mayo defence, whether as a starter or from the bench.

Christy Toye cemented his reputation as an impact sub with a beautifully taken goal, with his first touch and it may occur to Gallagher that he is better served having Toye as an option from the bench with Hugh McFadden and Martin O’Reilly as starters.

Midfield will be a big battle next weekend and it is worrying that Donegal have not decided on their middle two. Gallagher and Murphy started the game in the middle, with McElhinney entering the fray at half time. If the St Michael’s man partners Gallagher in the middle, he will have a big job picking up the older O’Shea brother and he will need to be better with his shot selection, which has been poor in the last two games. Anyone who has watched the Creeslough man in action will know that he has the shooting ability in his locker, but he needs to be more composed in the big games.

Neil Gallagher proved his reputation as Donegal’s ‘go-to man’ with the top possessions on Saturday and his worth cannot be underestimated. He is one of a rare species, who continues to improve as he gets older. His meteoric rise from average midfielder to the country’s finest continues unabated and if Donegal are to prevail, Gallagher will have to be at his very best.

Mayo were incensed that Donegal got to play at headquarters last weekend, claiming that it would give them an unfair advantage, ignoring that fact they got the opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, whilst also casually ignoring the hypocrisy of claiming unfair advantage, after playing two games to get to the quarter final, while Donegal have played a gruelling five times.

Next week’s game will see free-scoring Mayo, facing the blanket defence of Donegal and it will be interesting to see what tactical approaches are taken by the men on the line. Aidan O’Shea looked unstoppable against Sligo, but the tactical naivety of the Yeats’ men will not be replicated by Donegal. He will not be allowed the space he got in the Connaught final and will find the physicality of the Donegal defence a lot different from that of Sligo’s, but the problem for Donegal is that O’Connor is also prolific in front of the sticks and the Mayo half back line is full of pace and energy. Donegal will be looking to exploit the attack minded defenders with the quick ball to McBrearty and Murphy when he goes to the square. Mayo will be reminded of this tactic from the 2012 final, where Donegal used this tactic to perfection.

It may not be a game of beauty and a high scoring game is doubtful but next Saturday will be a fascinating duel between two contrasting styles. An epic battle awaits with both camps ready to do battle, but which gladiator will lead their tribe to victory? We await with bated breath.

 

 

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Can Rory break through the back door?

By John O’Hara (20th July 2015)

As the dust settles on Donegal’s defeat at the hands of Monaghan in the Ulster Football Final, the post mortem will be well underway in Rory Gallagher’s camp. The big question reverberating around the country in the aftermath of the defeat will be, ‘was this just an off-day or did we witness the beginning of the end of this Golden Generation?’

For what it’s worth, I am placing my faith in the former, putting Sunday’s defeat down to a mixture of an off day, a series of well-hidden injuries and bad decision making.

To put it into context, if just two of the sixteen wides that Donegal posted yesterday, they would have been champions for a fourth time in five years and everything would have been rosy in the garden. These are the margins that exist at the highest level and unfortunately for Donegal, they were unable to convert their superior possession into scores. However, this was not just simply poor shooting, it had a lot to do with poor shot selection, which I believe was a result of players not operating at their full fitness.

Yesterday once again highlighted Donegal’s reliance on Michael Murphy and that is not a criticism of Donegal, it is simply acknowledging just how good the man from Glenswilly really is. It was clear that he was not 100% fit and rumours have circulated since, that the Glen man had missed a fortnight’s training in the build up to the match. When you analyse his performance, it was clear he wasn’t doing what Michael Murphy normally does. He even opted to take a free from his hands, which he would normally take from the ground and the knee bandage he wore has added to the speculation.

Apart from his general play being hindered, his usual probing runs into opposition territory normally demand the attention of several attackers, leaving space for others to exploit, but yesterday this didn’t happen. You would think that it would be impossible to underestimate Murphy but this is an area of his game that few recognise and it allows the likes of McBrearty more time and space to execute their shots, which they weren’t able to do yesterday.

Karl Lacey went off at the beginning of the second half, which was a huge psychological blow to the Tir Conaill men. Lacey is a leader on the pitch, and that leadership was missing in the final minutes of the game. Donegal fans will remember the surging run he made in the 2012 semi-final, which put the final nail in the Kerry coffin, but yesterday he could only watch from the side-line, willing his team mates to get over the line.

So in my view, this is a game that Donegal lost rather than a game which Monaghan won. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply cold hard analysis and despite Donegal playing so poorly, they were within an inch of the post of throwing the game away. Had Donegal played like that against serious opposition like Kerry, Dublin or Mayo, the game would have been over at half-time.

So what now for the two time all-Ireland winners? They play a rejuvenated Galway side, who have come through the back door after succumbing to Mayo in the Connaught Championship. Their win against Derry will show that Kevin Walsh has instilled a bit of steel into a side that have been considered ‘soft’ in the new era of gaelic football. The Tribesmen have often been described as the connoisseurs of the GAA, as they have refused to adapt to the defensive side of the game.

This year however, they have turned to the dark side and have developed their defensive prowess and combined with a lightning quick full forward line, it has made them formidable opposition for anyone. Corofin’s success in the All-Ireland club championship has buoyed many in the county and the likes of Gary Sice, Liam Silk and Micheál Lundy have replicated their club form at county level. Damien Comer and Danny Cummins have been immense in this year’s campaign and they were unlucky against Mayo, despite putting it up to the reigning champions for much of the seventy minutes. Beating Ulster side, Derry in the last round of the qualifiers will have given them the experience of playing against a defensive Ulster side and they will be confidant going up against Donegal.

For Rory Gallagher, he has a fortnight now to get his house in order and try to get his key personnel back to full fitness. He has no worries about club games and players will be eager to set the record straight after Sunday’s defeat. Lacey, McFadden and Toye will be determined to prove the doubters, who have written them off as ‘over the hill’ and this could be key to rejuvenating Donegal’s hopes of landing Sam.

Everyone knows that you don’t approach a wounded animal without caution and Kevin Walsh will be well aware of this adage when approaching this game. Murphy, who is among the greatest players in the country will be hurting from the final defeat. Misplaced passes and no points from play is not the Michael Murphy that we know and I have a feeling that Galway may be unable to contain this man, if he is out to prove a point.

Although it will be a tough game, I expect Donegal to have too much for Galway, with the firepower of McBrearty, Murphy and McFadden. With two weeks recovery, I expect everyone to be fully fit and eager to go, with a mouth-watering clash with 2012 losing finalists, Mayo, the prize for overcoming the Tribesmen in Croke Park.

Many are hailing this as a watershed, the final nail in the Donegal coffin, but for me, this is simply a setback, a blip, which will be long forgotten, if Rory can break through the back door.

 

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