Roche's Point: Dour Donegal will never claim Sam with their grim plan
SURREAL or what? The Sky Blue footballers qualify for a first All-Ireland final since the summer of Jayomania and the post-match reaction – even from within the capital – is dominated not by giddy talk of Dublin/Kerry but by angst, make that anger, at Donegal’s heathen desecration of the so-called Beautiful Game.
Were we really so shocked that Donegal should park three double-deckers in front of their own goal, just because it was an All-Ireland semi-final and the rest of the country were looking on, waiting to be entertained?
The reality is that Donegal were always going to play an ultra-defensive game last Sunday because that is what they’ve been doing all season, and with a fair modicum of success, too. What surprised most of us, though, was the totality of Donegal’s devotion to Plan A.
The notion that you can win a major inter-county match simply by outscoring the opposition may sound naïve, almost fanciful, given how Gaelic football has evolved over the past decade. Yet the basic principle remains valid, whereas Donegal appear bedded to the idea that you win a game by conceding less than the opposition.
It’s a subtle difference, but the end result – a morass of midfielders and nominal forwards clogging up their own half, while Colm McFadden (below) is left in solitary confinement inside the opposing ‘45’ – is anything but subtle. It’s crude. It’s coma-inducing. More importantly, this tactic alone will not win you an All-Ireland.
The Donegal ‘debate’ has waged forward and back even before Sunday’s semi-final. The pragmatists insist that it’s a results business, and they have a point. Dublin under Pat Gilroy are nothing if not pragmatic, and once upon a time (in last year’s league) their on-field alignment threatened to be almost as defensive as Donegal’s.
Likewise, don’t be fooled by any cute Kerry hoor telling you that all Gooch and the boys do is, yerra, practice some shooting drills every time they convene in Fitzgerald Stadium for training.
Meanwhile, the new-age romantics will declare that Donegal’s defeat is for the greater good; that the vision of football as projected by Jim McGuinness and his army of worker ants will lead us all up a dimly-lit cul-de-sac.
They, too, may have a point.
But here’s a view somewhere in the middle. If Donegal had actually succeeded on Sunday (and they very nearly did), then we’d all have to grudgingly doff our caps at the sheer brazenness of the tactic; the idea that you can bring such outright negativity to the big stage and get away with it would have been grimly fascinating (with the emphasis on grim).
It would have been akin to the old Seventies Millwall chant: “No one likes us, we don’t care!”
But here’s the rub: as much as Dublin defeated Donegal on Sunday, the Ulster champions defeated themselves. To have a three-point lead against a team in panic mode and fail to press on; to persist with total defence when the opposition has just been reduced to 14 men; to finish the game with just two inside forwards when you are trailing by two points … none of these things are remotely pragmatic.
This may be year one of the team’s development under McGuinness but, chances are, Donegal won’t get a better chance to reach an All-Ireland final.
Early last summer, a team that had grown soft and mentally fragile bombed out of the championship. Donegal had to adapt or keep dying: they did so and that is a tribute to their articulate, thoughtful manager.
Now Donegal must adapt once more … or else the next time their championship dream dies, only a few mourners will be around to pay their last respects.