THREE YEARS BEFOREHAND, Dublin had beaten Donegal 0-8 to 0-6 in one of the most unconventional games of football ever played.
That 2011 All-Ireland semi-final was much criticised and McGuinness – in his first year in charge – later claimed Donegal went on the defensive as they were too early in their development to get into a shootout with Pat Gilroy’s team.
When the sides met again at the same stage in 2014, Donegal were still perceived to be huge underdogs but McGuinness had studied the side now managed by Jim Gavin attentively all summer.
In an extract from his new autobiography titled ‘Winning’ Donegal midfielder Rory Kavanagh outlines just how McGuinness deciphered Dublin …
On the morning of the game, McGuinness turned Mystic Meg.
On the flipchart beside him he had written down numbers.
Two or three goals.
16 or 17 points.
That’s what he had written down.
And he pointed to the numbers.
‘This score is achievable today!’ he announced.
It was the same message he had been giving us in training every week.
McGuinness’s tactical breakdown of what would happen against Dublin was almost perfect in 2011.
Back then, it was about keeping the numbers down. This time, though, the emphasis had shifted. It was how he had planned our evolution – our four-year cycle. ‘The Olympic Cycle’ as he would later term it.
We weren’t being told what to do to stop Dublin – now we would see if they could stop us.
‘There are goals in this game!’ he promised.
‘They are going to press high… once we get beyond the surge, we are into open country… have you got that?
‘I am watching them on videos all of the time… every game… the bad teams are getting nose bleeds when they get free and get into room…
‘Those other teams find themselves in space… in the middle of Croke Park, the noise, the pressure, they think they have to kick the ball…
‘… and they kick it down the throat of [Rory] O’Carroll and [Johonny] Cooper!’
He was telling us this, and he was working on what he was telling us in training.
He set up a particular drill. The man was told to solo alone down the field towards the full forward line, where [Michael] Murphy or Colm [McFadden] was marked one-on-one by a defender.
The man in possession had to make the best use he could of possession, with the inside forward trying to get free of the defender, who was marking out in front. If the pass wasn’t on, the ball-carrier was encouraged to go on and pop over his score.
In turn, every single evening, all of us found ourselves on dozens of runs down the middle of the field, nobody near us, running headlong towards our full forward line.
Soloing… and looking up.
Seeing Murph and Colm and Paddy [McBrearty], and seeing defenders two or three yards in front of each forward. McGuinness wanted us to develop our decision making on the ball. As we raced down the field, he told us we were in Croke Park.
‘You’ve broken through Dublin’s high surge… and you’re on the ball… you’re on your own…!’ he told us.
‘What are you going to do with the ball?’
In the first couple of sessions, all of us, every last man, was absolutely brutal in making the right decision. Again and again, a man was running through, nobody near him, and he was soloing the ball, looking up, soloing again, and every time he kicked it when he did not need to kick it.
‘This is what bad teams do…’ McGuinness announced. ‘This is what bad teams have been doing against Dublin in Croke Park… and here we are in training, and we’re doing the same thing!’
Eamon McGee and Paddy McGrath were winning the ball in front.
Every single evening, McGuinness had us making those runs.
He wanted us to do the right thing on the ball.
He wanted us to visualise running down the middle of Croke Park.
Nobody near the man on the ball.
Either delay the pass?
Wait for the forward to come?
Wait for the forward to make one run, two runs?
Wait for him to make three runs?
Wait, and have the patience, have the composure, to wait longer? Wait until the pass is definitely on?
All of this became ingrained in us.
Then the next phase of the movement.
What if the pass is not on?
Wait and keep running?
Run and keep running until the ball is run to completion?
‘There are goals in this game…’ McGuinness assured us, over and over.
‘There’s goals in this game, and we are going to get goals from our kick outs.
‘We are going to suck them in.’
We would beat Dublin playing the way we had been training for those weeks. And we would score three goals and 14 points in our semi final win.
‘Winning – How Donegal changed the game forever’ is available to buy in Letterkenny at Eason’s, Evolve Menswear, Clarke’s Newsagents, Macs Mace, Dry Arch Filling Station and at the Oldtown Shop. It is also available throughout the county and nationally at Eason’s and all good book stores and can be purchased on Amazon.
There will be €2 off the sale price on the night and, to give something back to the club, Rory has generously offered to donate €3 from every sale on the night directly to St Eunan’s.
He will also be in SuperValu in Carndonagh on Saturday to sign books from 1-3pm.