BY CHRIS MCNULTY
Mayo have quite the cunnundrum to solve on Sunday if they’re to beat Donegal in the race for Sam Maguire.
The puzzle has already stunted the advances of Mickey Harte, Jack O’Connor and Conor Counihan this summer.
Now, James Horan will try where all else before him have failed since May.
A lot is made of Donegal’s defensive ‘system’, but it’s the bells and whistles that come with it that have made Donegal such a formidable force – and the firm favourites to take the silver chalice back to The Hills next weekend.
Donegal have taken the defensive art to a new level, but it is the attacking exploits of the rearguard that has made them so hard to play against. Teams are taken to a place they don’t like; star forwards are dragged back in a vain pursuit of a Donegal man on a gallop forward.
The energy, intensity and sheer precision of their burts on a counter-attack are what really show the power of the collective that Jim McGuinness has brought to Donegal.
With 60 seconds of normal time remaining against Cork, a Donegal man powered from deep in his own half and up over halfway on a relentless pursuit of inserting a dagger into the wounded Rebels.
Paddy McGrath had played the game of his life, but the energy-sapping 69 minutes didn’t prevent the Ardara man from finding something within to propel him on a 50 yard run. They swarm in defence, but it is the attacking prowess of the unit that has been a sight to behold.
It is here that the real winning of this final could be.
Teams of late haven’t seen their defence score to the level that this Donegal team have in 2012. On their way to the final, Mayo’s rearguard has contributed 0-6 to the scoreboard. Frank McGlynn alone has kicked 1-3, his goal in the
Ulster final win over Down his first major in the county colours.
“When the chances come now I try to get involved as much as possible in the attack,” McGlynn said recently.
“We’re encouraged to get up the field and it seems now that when you’re going up, you can pass out the half-forward line or even some of the full-forwards. You need to be adaptable now in Gaelic football and be in control of the ball.”
Lee Keegan is Mayo’s top scoring defender, having kicked 0-3, but Donegal have had contributions from more than McGlynn, with Karl Lacey having 0-4 to his name in the Championship. Anthony Thompson and Declan Walsh have both scored 0-2 and Neil McGee got up from full-back for a point in the opening game against Cavan.
That’s a total of 1-12 from five defensive players in Championship football this year – not bad for a unit that was derided twelve months ago for being ultra cautious.
Mark McHugh is used in something of an unorthodox position in the Donegal myriad. He wears 12 on his back and his named in the half-forward line.
Watch the throw-in on Sunday and it’s a good bet that, the instant Maurice Deegan throws the O’Neills ball in the air at 3.30pm, you’ll see McHugh sprint back and take up a sentry somewhere between his full-back and half-back lines.
McHugh is the sweeper and so his contribution must also be considered. The Kilcar man has posted 0-6 in this year’s Championship, taking Donegal’s total to 1-18 from the players largely stationed in their own half of the field.
Getting on the scoreboard more was something McHugh said in the closed season he wanted to bring to his game. In the semi-final over Cork, he made a surge from deep that could have rivalled many athletes.
The boundless bundle of energy raced along the Hogan Stand to fist a point that swung the pendulum Tir Chonaill’s way at a crucial stage late in the first-half.
Seconds earlier, McHugh who got his hands on a ball deep in Donegal territory after Eamon McGee forced a dispossesion of Paul Kerrigan.
The tale was a similar one with Karl Lacey, only in reverse, in the quarter-final win against Kerry. With the tie in the melting pot, Lacey got space to kick a point that eased the ever-growing nerves as Kerry were within touching distance at the time. When the Kingdom launched a Hail Mary into the Donegal defence, who was there to emerge from the ruck with the leather in hand but Lacey.
It’s something that has come with the increasing confidence.
“You’ll find that the way we’re playing isn’t a whole lot different to last year. We are getting scores a bit easier and that was something we want to continue to do,” said assistant manager Rory Gallagher.
“When you have good forwards inside like Murphy and McFadden, they draw bodies to them and it leaves space for Karl, Frank, Tony, whoever, to attack the spaces.
“A lot of it is down to individuals improving as footballers, gaining confidence and belief.”
The Dublin team that won the All-Ireland last year had just 1-3 scored from its rearguard, while Donegal’s landed 0-9 up to the semi-final stage. At the same phase this year, the 1-18 racked up has more than doubled the figure.
His point against Cavan was the first Championship point scored by McGlynn, who was even popping over with his left foot against Cork in the semi. Watch any game from this year’s run to the final and the attacking contributions from those at the back is remarkable.
But it’s not surprising to those who’d worked previously under Jim McGuinness’s watch.
“At the club we were encouraged to attack in waves and he’s spent the last couple of years trying to instil that into us at county level,” says the ever-dependable Anthony Thompson.
Donegal have leaked a goal late in the last two games and there had been warning shots across the brow in previous matches – an area not of concern, but one to examine for McGuinness and company at their Co Kildare training camp this week.
The defence has been in excellent form again, aside from a couple of blotches on the copy book, like Kieran Donaghy’s late goal in the quarter-final and Colm O’Neill’s injury time strike against Cork, but by and large the ship hasn’t leaked too much.
“We have still kept our defensive qualities from last year,” says McGlynn.
“My main job is still as a defender – and you couldn’t do all that going forward unless the fitness levels were there to let you get back. You can’t neglect the defence when going on a burst up the field.”
And Donegal certainly haven’t neglected.
Their concession rate has been a little more than last year’s average. The two goals against Cork and Kerry have increased the average to 12 points per game – last year it was 9.5. The goal let in to Donaghy last month was the first goal from open play they conceded in two years of Championship football. The aim for the final will be to keep the sheet clean.
What makes their figures all the more impressive is the discipline. Despite playing to remorseless intensity levels, Donegal are remarkably disciplined. Against Cork, they conceded just one scoreable free.
All year, they’ve been doing this. The five frees by Paddy Bradley in the June annihilation of Derry is the most scored against Donegal in a Championship game in 2012. Including the penalty scored by Niall McDermott of Cavan, Donegal have passed up just 1-14 in six games since May.
If they retain that level of discipline and intensity, Sam will be theirs for the taking.
In Mayo’s semi-final win over Dublin, they hit seven points from placed balls – Cillian O’Connor scored four frees and three ‘45s.
They might not get that chance against Donegal’s mosaic, but those same men will provide plenty of questions at the other end of the park.
Wing Chun is a style of Kung Fu which uses the maxim, ‘The hand which strikes also blocks’. It’s a concept that, broken down, basically means executing a defensive style can lead to a good counter attack offence.
n other words, that the best defence is a good offence – the very key that can unlock the gates of Paradise at the weekend.