BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IN THE fourteenth minute of the 2012 All-Ireland final, Donegal were leading Mayo by seven points, ahead 2-1 to no score, when they came within a whisker of putting the game to bed.
The Hill 16 net was under siege from the rampant Donegal swarms and it took a David Clarke save to keep them at bay with a chance that would have sealed Sam Maguire.
A Clarke kick-out was won by Rory Kavanagh, whose off-load was picked up by the scampering figure of of Karl Lacey. From just inside his own half, Lacey punted long towards Michael Murphy. The most delicate of tap downs was perfect for the in-rushing Colm McFadden, but his low effort was kept out by the Mayo goalkeeper.
For Jim McGuinness, it had been poetry in motion, almost to a perfect conclusion.
“That move was directly off the training pitch,” he revealed last week when he met a dozen GAA correspondents in a boardroom at Jackson’s Hotel in Ballybofey.
“Michael and Colm came to me about that. They practised that as an inside-forward line. That came from them and that’s the case a lot of the time. I would be very open with them and look for information off them. I coach with an open mind.
“Some of the best tactics we have ever come up with have come from the players. I’ll throw something out there and they’ll put a spin on it. The spin they put on it will be better than what was there in the first place. They’re in there and they feel it.”
A lot has been made of Mark McHugh’s recent departure from the Donegal panel and how the Tir Chonaill system will cope without a man who was one of the engine’s leading piston in 2012. There is no doubt that McHugh will be a big loss, although there had been hints during the National League that Donegal were moving away from the sweeper’s role.
Just what McGuinness and Donegal are aiming to put into action on Sunday is anyone’s guess. With Rory Kavanagh out suspended and Neil Gallagher struggling with an injury, McGuinness has a connundrum at midfield.
The Donegal boss delivered a weekly reminder during the League that he was ‘road testing’ certain tactics and at his recent press briefing the Glenties man said that ‘two of them’ will be adopted for Sunday’s clash in Celtic Park against Derry.
He said: “I think it’s important to do that, to stimulate the players as well. You set your sights on different things and you bring different things to the Championship. I suppose you’re trying to bring the strengths that you have with you because it’s important that you’re not hashing up everything and trying to reinvent the wheel.
“We know our strengths when we’re at ourselves and if you can add value – that’s the key thing. Probably out of the four or five things, two probably worked really well and one decent. And we’d definitely adopt two of them.
“If you have an idea, the chances of executing are average. If you’re very clear, they’re very good. If you’re crystal clear, 100 per cent and you have repetitioned it out in terms of what you want to do, that translates to about 75 per cent on a Championship match day.
You have a lot of different dynamics at play but I feel if you have it right on the training pitch it could go to 75-80 per cent for the Championship match day.
“Some of it is them telling me what the game plan is instead of the other way around.”
Too much sometimes can be made of a team being restricted to one plan.
Last year, Clare hurlers played with a sweeper for most of the campaign. When Davy Fitzgerald met The Banner players at the start of the year he presented six different game plans to them. By year’s end he’d adopted four of them: A seventh defender; man-to-man marking; a sweeper; and an all-out attacking approach.
For the All-Ireland final against Cork, Fitzgerald unhooked the shackles. After Dómhnall O’Donovan drilled over a dramatic late equaliser in the final, Fitzgerald had another trick up his sleeve. Twenty minutes into the replay, young Shane O’Donnell had netted a hat-trick.
Clare were prepared for the hard road. A quote from Fitzgerald in Damian Lawlor’s new book ‘Fields of Fire’ stands out: ‘Before the game, we looked each other in the eye. We knew we’d be okay.’
When McGuinness looks around the compact Celtic Park dressing room on Sunday, he won’t expect anyone to blink.
His side have had the look of a weary former champion at the end of the line for a lot of the campaign, but with the Championship upon him he has been exuding a positive persona.
He said: “We’ve took a different approach in terms of our preparation. Traditionally, we’d like to do things at a certain pace at a certain time of the year. This year we’ve kind of change things around and steadied the ship a lot more.”
It has been all about this day. Key players have yet to spark and the hope around Donegal is that they can find a kick.
For, if they do their manager believes it could be the making of their revival.
He said: “If we could get over Derry, if I could project three weeks into the future and we had won that match, then we would be in a really good position because we’d have everybody home from college. This year we’ve people in Belfast, Dublin, Galway and Limerick driving up the road. They’re arriving fatigued. Because they’re working we’re training later, so we start at eight o’clock and it’s 10 o’clock before they’re getting a bite to eat. And then they’re getting into a car and going to Dublin.
“If we could get over this game we’d have a month until the next game and we’d have everybody home. That would be a really good split in terms of having three weeks for coaching and a week for tapering. We did push the button the week before the League final to get the four weeks of a run-in.
“I feel that we’re building nicely at the moment. I’m clear in my own head what we want to do.
“Football is like a boxing match. You need to go into the ring knowing that you have the work done. You are confident, you know you are prepared and you are looking forward to the battle.”
When McGuinness blows the bugle on Sunday morning, he expects his men to answer the call. It has been all about this.
He said: “This is the part I enjoy. This is why I coach. This is why I manage. This is it. This is the buzz for me.”
The gloves are off.