Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2011 Donegal Derry 520x280

THE LOWDOWN

Donegal

They are so much more than a system and anyone who can’t see that much hasn’t been watching them closely enough this year. Sure, without the ball they still track back and all fulfil their roles and slot into a clearly-defined defensive gameplan but when they turnover possession, unlike last year, they’ve  increased their individual ability and skill level vastly. Frank McGlynn is one of the best ball-carriers in football right now, Mark McHugh and Karl Lacey are two of the better
distributors in football right now and Colm McFadden is one of the sharper marksmen in football right now. None of that was the case of the year ago as they went lateral when in possession, allowing teams to filter back and keep them to an average of well under 12 points per game. This year that figure has risen nearly 50 per cent to well over 17.

A good team should always be more than the sum of their parts, and they are even though the sum of Donegal’s parts is astounding. No one has worked out how to get around the blanket just as no one has worked out a way to stop them countering to devastating effect and to the extent they are one of the more exciting attacking teams in football at the minute and by extension one of the most complete sides we’ve seen since another couple of Ulster were redefining how football was played shortly after the millennium. Winning one is hard, but if they can do that just as they should, who knows how many more might come
their way.

Mayo

If the opposition has worked on individual skill levels to evolve, then that’s been the case with them as well. Indeed it’s been an obvious ploy with the Connacht champions. James Horan has in the past referred to the skill deficits that existed during the 1996 All Ireland final and he saw them as the reason for mistakes down the stretch and ultimately a heart-breaking loss to Meath that year. They couldn’t make a specific kick pass so held onto the ball and ultimately lost it and they couldn’t hand-pass with the right so hand-passed with the left when it didn’t suit and they gave it away 16 years go. So with the help of Ed Coughlan it’s that which they have spent much of their time working on.

It’s what the trainer worked on during his university years and his theory that skill is there to be learned rather than a birth right has been proven through his efforts with the county. But unlike Donegal, they play a far more orthodox game, using their wing-backs in a traditional sense as they get forward and create width and an overlap while their forwards will look to spread the scoring burden, as each
one of this team has improved drastically under Horan. Suddenly players like Kevin Keane, Ger Cafferkey and Barry Moran are potential All Stars while Kevin McLoughlin is a potential Footballer of the Year and that’s down to the improvements that have been made by Coughlan as he has delved as far into the basics as hand-eye co-ordination and learning to run properly.

WHAT THEY MUST DO

Donegal

Keep their heads and do exactly what they’ve been doing all year regardless of the hype and distractions leading into this match and regardless of how they start the game. A lot has been made of what happens when Donegal get in front, but in truth they’ve never been far ahead at the break in big games and teams just can’t keep up with their style after the restart. The blanket defence must hold its shape, Mark McHugh must get into the same position he so often has to dominate the tempo, they have to keep their discipline as Mayo come off the shoulder at pace and they must vary the counter through Frank McGlynn’s hands and Karl Lacey’s boot.

They’ll face a midfield every bit as good as Cork’s but Neil Gallagher must do what he did to Alan O’Connor the last day when facing off against Aidan O’Shea and Rory Kavanagh must try and exploit Barry Moran’s limited mobility. After that, we don’t for a second doubt Colm McFadden will again rise to the challenge and finish the season as top scorer in the process, but he could do with Michael Murphy returning to the top of his game to ease the burden just in case something goes
wrong.

Mayo

They must move the ball at pace across the pitch, and most importantly, when that isn’t on they must show patience in holding possession, even if that involves going back across midfield and the crowd getting on their backs. Against no other side is the ball more important to have so they cannot run down blind alleys or they’ll lose possession, be hit on the counter and lose the game. Tyrone for 35
minutes showed the best way to get at the Donegal defence and it involved using the width of the pitch, moving the ball from touchline to touchline with the boot in order to drag the opposition out of position, and then when faced with a rare one on one they'll have to either beat their marker with direct, hard running or shoot on sight and be accurate.

For Mayo to get enough on the board they simply cannot freeze as Alan Dillon did down the stretch against Dublin when opting for an easy hand pass rather than the cross-field ball into space. The fact they have an array of good forwards, but no marquee scorer, isn’t a bad thing so long as they all play as they did in the last eight and last four because Donegal can’t just focus on the main threat.

Elsewhere, they must match the opposition for energy when getting back to defend against the counter, they need Cillian O’Connor to start off like he did the last day over dead balls so they avoid being fouled with no punishment and they must hope Barry Moran dominates the skies in midfield and Aidan O’Shea gets forward with quick ball in hand and imposes his physicality.

HOW IT’LL PLAY OUT

Mayo’s mottos as far back as the Connacht League opener in January has been to take the ball at pace off the shoulder of the runner once he’s bottled up and never leave a man alone in defence. At no stage this year will that be more important and even at that, it may not be enough. Better teams than this Mayo have tried to follow those rules but just couldn’t match Donegal’s intensity, discipline, energy,
system or skill. But not only do Horan’s side need to do that, their wing-backs will be vital in terms of the first line of defence but also providing the width and overlap in attack. They are the only ways Mayo will get the time and the space to score. They did it against Dublin, but they’ll be on the back foot a lot more here. On top of all that, Mayo will also have to stick to their own gameplan. It’s naïve
to suggest you can go toe-to-toe against Donegal without thinking about their approach but they can’t get caught up like Conor Counihan and Cork, taking away from their own strengths to counteract Donegal’s.

But we’re not so sure the Mayo midfield will be able to win clean ball here and if it breaks, there’s no better team to shovel dirty possession than Donegal as they crash fearlessly into the tackle. If they get enough of it, they are on their way and if Mayo are anyway ponderous in attack and turnover ball, the Ulster champions will move it quick and take the opposition apart. As good as the Mayo full-back
line has been this season, it’s at that point they’ll be isolated and we aren’t sure we fancy them in those match-ups. If Keith Higgins takes Colm McFadden he won’t get forward, Ger Cafferkey won’t have it his own way against Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty is having a great year and Donegal will just keep coming from deep.

Mayo might live with that for a while, but the scoreline in Donegal games is often misleading. If the Connacht side don’t get a good start, don’t get a goal at some point, don’t keep a clean sheet and don’t head for the dressing room at the break in command on the scoreboard and in terms of actual play, they’ll come up short. It’s too much, too soon to ask them to do all that against what could be
the dominant force in football for some years to come.

VERDICT

Donegal by five.