ON THE MORNING of the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, Jim McGuinness turned to his flipchart.
“Two or three goals,” the Donegal manager stressed pointing towards what he had just written as his panel watched on at Johnstown House.
Photo caption: Colm McFadden of Donegal rounds Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton to score his side’s third goal in their 3-14 to 0-17 win at Croke Park in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final. Photo: Geraldine Diver
“Sixteen or seventeen points,” McGuinness added. “This score is achievable today.”
Donegal were 7/1. Their opponents, Dublin, were said to be ‘unbeatable.’[adrotate group=”38″]
Three years previously, at the Ashbourne Hotel, McGuinness had been in the exact same situation with a completely different strategy.
Everyone in the room was instructed to put their mobile phone into a bag as McGuinness rolled out the most unconventional plan ever to win a football match.
“We thought of bringing all 15 men behind the ball, of leaving no player in the Dublin half,” he wrote in Until Victory Always: A Memoir.[adrotate group=”53″]
“That morning we spoke about keeping Dublin scoreless at half-time. We believed there was a fair chance of that happening.
“As we saw it Dublin were essentially a defensive team. For instance, our defenders were free to carry the ball forward if they wanted. It was clear the Dublin back six stayed at home. My thinking was simple: If they had six back at all times and we have three or four up, they are going to win the battle.
“So why should we do it? The winning of the game would come down to our transition from defence to attack. Get up the field. Move it at pace. Attack in waves. If we drove out of defence in numbers we should have an overlap and we should be meeting six defenders in a standing position. It was a numbers game. And if we moved the ball sharply, in theory we should move every time.
“The running game is how we play Gaelic football.”
McGuinness’s system, at that stage, was still in its infancy; although the cards seemed to be stacking in Donegal’s favour for a spell. Their spluttering up of balls in the tackle, however, as men in possession got isolated with a defence too hemmed in, made for a sterile and claustrophobic affair.
But Donegal – who went with 14 men back with Colm McFadden a lonely figure up top – were only in the process of development. Pat Gilroy’s Dublin held their shape.
A game of stares developed at Croke Park in front of 81,436. Dublin scored only twice in that first half – 0-4 to 0-2 down – but didn’t blink and won 0-8 to 0-6.
By 2014, the perception of Donegal was dented considerably having been hammered as holders of Sam Maguire by Mayo 4-17 to 1-10 in the previous year’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
McGuinness spent that whole spring of 2014, in Glenties or Glasgow, studying Dublin. Forward and back. Over and over. Time and again. He deciphered them, although admitted he couldn’t crack Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs.[adrotate group=”76″]
Donegal needed a late Patrick McBrearty score to sneak a one-point quarter-final win over Armagh, who were hurtling towards Division 3.
McGuinness skipped the post-match interviews. Instead, selector Damien Diver sat in the Cusack Stand media room, which had no lighting that afternoon; a media blackout of sorts.
Diver was illuminated only by mobile phones being used as voice-recorders as McGuinness, out in the open, saw Dublin play Monaghan.
When sections of the media got whispers he would field questions after the second instalment of the double-header, in which Dublin had swatted away Donegal’s beaten Ulster finalists 2-22 to 0-11, they scampered to the fourth floor.[adrotate group=”70″]
They were there well before the game finished, only to learn McGuinness had left for the Skylon Hotel. He, presumably, had seen nothing new.
“Jim informed his players directly after the Armagh game he had a plan that he had been working on for a while on how Dublin would be defeated,” Donegal secretary, Aodh Máirtín Ó Fearraigh, wrote in his annual report that December.
That Tuesday, McGuinness spoke to his players.
“I know how to beat Dublin,” he began. “I’ve been tracking them all year. It’s all bullshit … All this talk of them being the team nobody can beat … it’s all bullshit.”
The scene before the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final in 2014 when Donegal faced Dublin at Croke Park. Photo: Geraldine Diver
Dublin had an electric forward line; their winning margins that summer were 11 points, 15, 16 and 17, with their average return 28.75 points. But they craved goals. Monaghan were level at 0-3 to 0-3 on 25 minutes before Diarmuid Connolly side-footed a goal that changed the entire atmosphere at Croke Park.
McGuinness noted Dublin would push up on kick-outs, swarm and turnover from the front and manufacture a large quantity of their scores from there. If opponents got past that initial surge, they’d panic – get “nose bleeds” and needlessly kick away possession in the wide open spaces – even though Dublin would only mark man-for-man and always, out in front.
“Nobody gave us a chance in hell,” wrote Donegal midfielder Rory Kavanagh in his autobiography Winning. “And for the first 25 minutes, that was still the unanimous verdict.”
Dublin led 0-9 to 0-4.[adrotate group=”37″]
While Donegal defended what McGuinness called “the U” they accepted that Dublin had it in their locker to score boomers. McGuinness said Dublin doing this would not break Donegal’s spirit, but the concession of goals would.
Paul Durcan saved from Connolly, who’d started brilliantly. Christy Toye came on. Connolly and the impressive Paul Flynn, who’d homed in points for fun initially, skied a couple. Donegal scored three in a row.
The RTE Six-One News highlights of Donegal’s All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin in 2014
Then, it happened.
“The momentum just swung,” Dublin forward Bernard Brogan would later say. “Donegal went down, they got a high ball in, the bounce of the ball went to Ryan McHugh and he stuck it in the back of the net.”
Donegal, despite only playing for 10 minutes, went in 1-7 to 0-9 up. In the second half, their choreographic breakaways, perfectly embedded through McGuinness’s repetition at a five-day training break in Enfield, clicked.
“He’d set up a particular drill with two groups and the ball was played over the head of one of the groups and a man ran onto it,” Kavanagh added. “The man was told to solo down the field towards a two-on-two or a three-on-three.
“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.[adrotate group=”45″]
“‘You’ve broken through Dublin’s high surge’ … ‘You’re on the ball’ … ‘You’re on your own’ … ‘What are you going to do with the ball?’”
Don’t kick it away needlessly. Don’t panic. Don’t get a nose bleed.
Anthony Thompson fashioned a second goal for McHugh to slap home on 39 minutes and from then on, Donegal were rampant, ripping through Dublin’s undermanned defence time and again. It was the perfect storm.[adrotate group=”68″]
McFadden punched over. Frank McGlynn opted for a point when he might’ve gone on. McFadden rounded Cluxton for a third Donegal goal in front of Hill 16 as the Ulster champions had a five on three breakaway.
McHugh was denied a hat-trick following a fabulous fingertip save from the Dublin goalkeeper. Dublin, scoring from 50 metres in the first half, were missing from 15 in the second. McBrearty came on to kick two fabulous points.
Donegal defenders Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn put pressure on Dublin’s Paul Flynn in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final meeting of the sides at Croke Park. Photo: Geraldine Diver
“In my opinion,” McGuinness said afterwards. “… in football you can win every single game if your mind is right and your preparations are right.”
Dublin 0-17 Donegal 3-14 – not far off what McGuinness had predicted that very morning.
The ‘unbeatable’ team had been beaten.Tags: