Posted by John Kelly

Tale of the tape ahead of the big clash between the Tir Chonaill men and the Oak Leaf County in the Ulster championship

2011 Donegal Derry 520x280

John Brennan and Jim McGuinness took over Derry and Donegal respectively in 2010. They met in the Ulster final last year in a match that, for Donegal, typified the new system McGuinness was implementing. They held Derry to just eight points on that occasion and they would concede the same tally to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final.

By then, though, the tactical approach that drew such strong criticism from pundits had been refined and applied in its most extreme form. Arguably, had Donegal adopted a more flexible game plan, while still basing their style on the defensive system, there were opportunities to finish Dublin off which were missed. Instead, they invited their opponents to attack and the introduction by Pat Gilroy of the direct running and pacy Kevin McMenamon turned the game in Dublin’s favour.

Brennan, meanwhile, is adamant Derry are better equipped to defeat their rivals this weekend than they were when they lost the provincial decider a year ago.

The straight-shooting boss dismissed his side’s league form, making no attempt to conceal how little he cares for the competition or how much of an indicator it was of Derry’s form. Certainly, the statistics back up his claims. Last year, they won five league games out of seven; this year it was two.

This weekend, their chances will be enhanced immeasurably by the availability at least one Bradley brother, namely Paddy. It was hoped that Eoin woulod be back but he has suffered an injury setback with his club so he might not make the game in any capacity. Both missed last year’s Ulster final and any Bradley presence should ensure Derry post a healthier tally than they managed in that game. Brennan also believes they are a better defensive unit and, if he is to be taken at his word, then his side have a real chance of dethroning Donegal.

However, McGuinness has had an extra league campaign and, crucially, one championship match in which to tweak their approach. There have been signs that Donegal are committing more men forward but, in order for the high levels of mobility and running from deep to be maintained not only over the course of 70-plus minutes but over a whole season, fitness is crucial. Indeed, Meath’s Joe Sheridan is not the only one to point out that, in the modern game, counties are pushing the boundaries on the physical limits of their players. Against Cavan, Donegal looked even more physically in tune than they did at this stage last year. 

McGuinness’ side were far more consistent as last season went on, as evidenced by their stunningly effective defensive system which drew such criticism, particularly after they almost succeeded in suffocating the life out of a previously fluid Dublin attack in that semi-final.

In fact, their achievements in terms of scores conceded didn’t get the praise they deserved, as if they were somehow made less legitimate by the nature of their game-spoiling approach. Whatever one thinks of that style, it was truly fascinating to witness such a dichotomy of tactical ideologies: Dublin refusing to commit defenders too far forward when it must have been tempting to throw everything they had at their rigidly disciplined opponents, preferring instead to probe patiently until they carved scoring opportunities for themselves; Donegal withdrawing up to 13 or 14 men deep into their own half before attempting to catapult themselves into Dublin territory.

Although Donegal looked more open against Cavan, the presence of the Paddy Bradley will sharpen that defensive edge and we may glimpse the first signs of the familiar conservative approach. That game plan yielded some spectacular results last year. Eight times in 13 games Donegal conceded less than 10 points. In the championship, only Kildare managed to get into double figures against them in terms of points scored – and that was over ninety-plus minutes during that enthralling quarter-final.

Ironically, Brennan’s dismissal of the league may prove rash because, despite Donegal’s poorer record this season, they were in Division 1 where games against the top teams in the country can only benefit them. Derry, on the other hand, suffered a poorer return in their recent Division 2 campaign when compared to last season but, again, as Brennan said: “I can say now that I held players back in the league. I withdrew players. I held them back.

“I can say that now because we knew who we were playing in the championship and I knew what was required. I hope that I have worked it reasonably well.”

That question will be answered this weekend.

 

Brennan and McGuinness records since taking charge (league and championship):

Derry

Games played

Games won

Avg points scored per  game

Avg winning margin

Avg losing margin

2011

11

7

15.7

5

8

2012

7

2

13.3

4.5

7.25

 

Donegal

Games played

Games won

Avg points scored per game

Avg winning margin

Avg losing margin

2011

13

9

15

6.4

3

2012

8

4

13.3

5

6