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15th Jul 2016

‘There was a lot of head scratching’ – Barry Cahill recalls the first time he encountered Jim McGuinness tactics

Whole new ball game

Mikey Stafford

There was much mirth this week when Jim McGuinness rewrote history.

The man behind Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland triumph was complaining about the current, ultra-defensive approach of many counties in Gaelic football.

People were not slow about pointing out the irony/hypocrisy in the godfather of the modern, counter-attacking game bemoaning the fact managers are mimicking him and bringing 13 or 14 players behind the ball and surrendering possession and territory.

Eyebrows were raised when McGuinness, in his Irish Times column, suggested teams should be forced to leave at least three players in the opposing half at all times, as he supposedly did with Donegal.

On Sunday McGuinness’s one-time assistant and friend Rory Gallagher will lead Donegal into an eagerly-awaited Ulster final against Tyrone in Clones. Both Gallagher and his opposite number Mickey Harte have tweaked the McGuinness model, pressing higher up the pitch and committing more men to attack once they turn over the ball.

However on Thursday’s edition of The GAA Hour (from 44′ 30″ below), Dublin All-Ireland winner Barry Cahill recalls the first time he came face-to-face with Donegal’s unrefined, ultra-defensive tactics – before McGuinness added the attacking edge that claimed Sam Maguire in 2012.

It was the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, a game that will go down in infamy as one of the most defensive penultimate round matches ever to grace the Croke Park stage. Dublin eventually won out eight points to six on a day when Donegal rarely had three forwards in the opposition half.

Centre-forward Cahill remembers how Donegal’s wing-forwards Mark McHugh and Ryan Bradley immediately retreated into their own half, running past him the moment Maurice Deegan threw in the ball.

“From the throw-in the two half-forwards, Bradley and Mark McHugh ran past me, [they] didn’t even look to see if Neil Gallagher won the throw-in or anything like that.

“They just ran past me and were stationary in that hole in front of Bernard Brogan from the fifth second of the match and didn’t leave it,” said Cahill.

“I was standing beside Karl Lacey saying, ‘what’s going on here?'”

GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final 28/8/2011 Donegal vs Dublin Donegal's Ryan Bradley and Dens Bastick of Dublin Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

It was not as if Pat Gilroy had not prepared for the unorthodox approach of the Ulster champions, but they had underestimated Donegal’s commitment to flooding their own half.

“Leading into the game we would have had A versus B games and the B team would have had 17 players. The easy thing to say is put quick, direct ball inside and get the ball in before the players are able to retreat,” said Cahill.

“We played into their hands and starting taking pot shots from the sideline and the endline. Jim McGuinness would have told Donegal before the game that this was what Dublin were going to do, so his half-time speech would have been easy because everything unfolded exactly as he predicted.”

GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final 28/8/2011 Donegal vs Dublin Managers Donegal Jim McGuinness of Donegal and Pat Gilroy of Dublin Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

Dublin’s half-time team talk was a little bit more difficult, with Gilroy eventually cracking the code and making the tactical and personnel changes to win the game by the odd two points out of 14.

“There was a lot of head scratching. In fairness, Mickey Whelan and Pat would have given us a few minutes ourselves to chat through it.

“We changed a few things, Kevin McManamon coming on was a big thing. Another big thing was patience and composure because you had that feeling that Donegal wouldn’t be that defensive or tackle with that aggression for the full 75 minutes and the game might be won in the last 10 minutes.

“That is what happened. I think we got the last 3 scores to win 8-6.”

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