Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2012 Donegal Murphy 520x280

Just last month, after overseeing the success of the British Olympic team in his role as director of sport, Clive Woodward was asked about translating those achievements back to a team sport such as rugby. His answer was an eye-opener for people in any game.

“One key coaching principle of mine in particular has been reinforced during my six years with Team GB,” he noted. “It is that rugby spends far too long coaching the team and nowhere near enough time improving individual players. World Cup-winning rugby teams need podium players, people who are the best in the world in their position, or the second or, at worst, third best. Build a rugby team full of individual ‘medallists’ and you have a team who can beat the world. A current weakness in rugby is that coaching the team collective has taken on an overwhelming importance. It is a lot easier than coaching individuals, which is why I tip my hat to many of the brilliant coaches in Team GB who excel at improving the individuals. They are the unsung heroes of home success.”

Given that assessment, we tip our hat to Jimmy McGuinness because long before the flame was lit in London, that’s exactly what he was doing with Donegal. It would be simplistic to say it’s been the sole reason behind their success as so much has gone on in the county and the dedication of their players played a big part, but it has been the key reason behind what they have done in 2012.

Last year, I had watched every Donegal game and when I took my seat in the top of the Cusack Stand for the Kildare quarter-final, I fancied the Leinster side. Regardless of the team system they were up against, the standard of individual footballers they faced was little more than average and in August that shouldn’t cut it. If, as Woodward alluded to, you need at worst a top-three national player in each position, then Donegal’s system was giving them false hope when it came to winning it all.

Neil McGee a year ago could be considered a top-three full-back, Paul Durcan a top-three goalkeeper, Kevin Cassidy a top-three wing-back and Karl Lacey a top-three centre-back. But that was just over a quarter of the team and then what?

Michael Murphy had the potential but was playing in a role a junior footballer with a good set of lungs could have filled; further up the field Colm McFadden was so one-footed you wondered were there forwards who could kick off neither foot populating the panel; it was too soon for Paddy McBrearty and Mark McHugh; while the likes of Anthony Thompson, Neil Gallagher, Michael Hegarty and David Walsh just slotted into a system and looked like easily replaceable parts.

That they won that day was testament to their mental strength and Kildare’s mental frailty, as well as a dodgy umpire call, but it was against the odds and the excitement at the end of extra-time hid the truth about that game. The reality was that Kieran McGeeney’s side self-destructed against a group who couldn’t do the basics to the extent they were afraid to kick pass more than 10 years and at times look scared to go forward, all of which led to the slow, ponderous and lateral game that was so bemoaned. 

Granted, while it was depressing to watch, when you considered the recent past, it was understandable too as to win an Ulster final was progress with a group that had been humiliated in the qualifiers in Crossmaglen in 2010 and limped out of the championship without so much as a single win.

But if 2011 was an unlikely run, it was overhyped too because in truth Donegal’s limitations were shown against Dublin as were the limitations of a system against more skilled and better individual footballers.

All that makes the journey to Sunday all the more remarkable because right now, Donegal not only have a system that’s hard to beat, but they’ve worked on individual skill levels this season to the point where now most of this team are in the top-three in their position in football.

It’s a combination that has made them untouchable and should see them win the final. Against Cork people finally opened their eyes to the fact this isn’t just a group who rope-a-dope, sucking up punishment before countering when their opponents are out on their feet. They are one of the more exciting attacking teams in football right now and while the system may be responsible for a large part of their defensive gameplan, individual skill is behind the fact they are averaging more than 17-points-per-game this championship. As a unit they are strong just as they were a year ago, but as individuals in possession they are seriously talented.

Ironically, the Mayo coach Ed Coughlan could tell you exactly how that’s been possible. Studying in Liverpool, he specialised in how you aren’t born with skill, but you develop it through training. He’s even taught his own players further down the west coast how to run properly and basic hand-eye co-ordination but the greatest example of his theory is to be found in the opposition evolution this year and it’s the sort of quality that could result in one of the most one-sided All Star teams in an age if Donegal dominate this game as they’ve dominated so many others.

A year ago criticism of a limited Donegal was justified. Now though, anyone who sees them as just a system is missing the point with this team. Indeed if Clive Woodward were to tune in Sunday, he’d find the perfect example of his key coaching principle.