Posted by Ewan MacKenna

Donegal have evolved since last year and look a more complete outfit as they prepare to defend their Ulster crown

2012 Tyrone Donegal 520x280

Donegal's success is based on far more than just hunger and desire as they look to win a second successive Anglo-Celt Cup.

When it comes to tactical analysis, we hate to use words such as concentration and focus. Too often in Gaelic games lazy, immeasurable and subjective terms are thrown out there along with the likes of courage and heart to describe what a team needs to do or what a team has just done. But when it comes to Donegal, they are fundamental along with more objective descriptions. Only a combination of all can give a sense of a side that are redefining Gaelic games and should they win an All Ireland they’ll have just as much of an effect on the way football is played as Armagh did in 2002, as Tyrone did in 2005 and as Kieran Donaghy did in July 2006.

Some baulk at that thought. After their win against Tyrone last weekend, there were certain commentators that again called for a change in the rules to stop their type of game. But there are two issues here. Yes, their cynicism out the field and their stalling of the game by fouling in non-threatening positions needs to be halted, but the rules are already there to handle such a gameplan, it just needs a referee to enforce them. But there’s no reason to change the rules of the game because Donegal choose to defend, to carry the ball out of defence and play with such endurance that they grind teams down.

As an organisation, it’s not the GAA’s responsibility to alter the rulebook based on what some people don’t find pleasing. It was surprising to hear Martin McHugh of all people, given his links to the team through his son Mark, talk about such alterations. If a team have come up with such a useful tactic, it’s not for the ruling body to look for ways around it. It’s up to other teams to find a way to better it. It’s what the evolution of sport is about and just because football stayed the same for so long doesn’t mean we should be overwhelmed with making up for lost time in the last 10 years. In fact the changes in how we play football seem to scare some people and that’s a pity because they should fascinate people. Styles make fights and they make football too.

Besides, there’s a strange beauty in what Donegal are doing in 2012 and it shouldn’t be used as an example of negative Gaelic football, it should be used as an example of what a ferociously dedicated and committed group can do in just two years. Think back to 2010 and where Donegal were at. There may have been no shame in losing to Down in the Ulster Championship but their exit at the hands of Armagh in the qualifiers was pathetic. They were a shambles of a team - unfit, disjointed, with no sense of purpose and no sense of interest. Yet from there to here in such a short space of time should be a source of admiration because no others have achieved such a feat. Cork and Dublin took twice as long while Kildare after five years are still learning. Indeed, only Mayo are anywhere near comparable and even they haven’t been as impressive despite their improvements.

Some people may want an open game full of easy and eye-pleasing scores but what Donegal do is far more difficult for various reasons. There is the endurance factor to their game that we already alluded to. At the weekend they faced a team with the behind-the-scenes structures of Tyrone yet Mickey Harte’s side weren’t able to go stand up to the opposition for more than 50 minutes. Indeed Donegal’s second half was as close to perfect defending as you’ll see. Take the frustrations of Owen Mulligan. Every time he threw a solo to beat the first man, there were three more men on him. And when Donegal inevitably turned over the ball, they weren’t slow and ponderous and lateral like they were a year ago. Instead they had the courage to move the ball at pace and take a risk on the front foot, when they wouldn’t when defending. That makes perfect sense.

We’ve said before of Frank McGlynn that he’s one of the most underrated footballers about. Watch him in the Ulster final. In most counties his defensive efforts would be enough but every time they pay off and ball is coughed up by the opposition, he’s off linking defence to attack, carrying the ball across crazy yards in the course of a game. But there’s yet another dimension to his and Donegal’s game that we saw against Tyrone but not in 2011. In the second half, after an almost rope-a-dope style in the opening period, they used the kick pass into the full-forward line. Tyrone’s defence was good - very good - but after choking Donegal they couldn’t live with them when the diagonal ball started to be aimed at Colm McFadden. It is another way they can beat you.

But don’t underestimate the mental toughness of this group because it matches their physical toughness. Look at Kildare as an example of what mindset can do to a team. But that frailty will not occur with this Donegal side and they never looked like losing at the weekend despite how close it was on the scoreboard and despite how well Tyrone played. They gave away some cheap frees in the first half within shooting range, which was uncharacteristic, but they realised their mistakes and after the interval Tyrone couldn’t get any go-forward yards, couldn’t get within shooting range, couldn’t live with what they were up against.

Some might complain there’s no beauty in that, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And there’s something special about a side that can close out a game with their backs before kicking on with their forwards. It's up to others to work out a way to beat Donegal's tactics. It's for us to enjoy that struggle.