Armagh legend Steven McDonnell retired from intercounty duty at the start of last season, and cast his expert eye on the 2012 All-Ireland football championship as GAA.ie’s football columnist for the year.
Here, we reproduce some of the highlights of his ‘Point Taken’ column, which featured on GAA.ie throughout the summer.
July 18, 2012: Steven’s first column for GAA.ie came ahead of two provincial finals, the Ulster final between Donegal and Down, and the Leinster final between Dublin and Meath. As a veteran of seven provincial finals and countless other major games, Steven reflected on the importance of being strong of mind ahead of such big occasions.
“I was once the weak-minded player. It was the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry in 2000. I got carried away with the occasion and took my mind off the match. I was rooming with Cathal O’Rourke the night before, and I asked him the question of what it was like to play in Croke Park? It was past midnight. Cathal told me to shut up and go to sleep. I was too caught up in my childhood dream of playing in Croke Park, and I forgot about the main event. I got taken off and never touched leather in that match, and afterwards I made a promise to myself that this would never happen to me again. It never did.
“I always found the worst part of these matches was the dressing room beforehand. The dressing room can be an intense place. The Armagh dressing room was always a special place to be in. It was a place full of strong characters. In Croke Park, we all had our own seats. I was always beside OisĂn and John McEntee. They were calm and relaxed so this helped me. Geezer had his seat and after he got changed, he just sat there with his eyes closed thinking about the game. It’s important that every player has their routine but even our more relaxed players would have taken time to themselves in the dressing room to gather their thoughts. I always did and to this day it is something I still do.”
August 1, 2012: As the championship kicked into gear around the start of August, Steven delivered a fascinating column on the importance of trust in winning teams and squads. He remembered an incident when he tested the trust of some of his Armagh teammates during their heyday.
“Training was always a place where players and management had run-ins and rows but once we walked off the pitch this was forgotten about. I tested the trust of my team-mates once or twice. My birthday always fell around Ulster final time. In 2004 after we beat Donegal, the big day fell on the Tuesday after. We agreed we’d celebrate the victory together on the Sunday night and if anyone wanted to go for beers on the Monday that was fine.
“After this though, we had to re-hydrate and get the body right for training on the Thursday night, and get ready to give the All Ireland a good rattle. I had other ideas. Marty O’Rourke, Paul Watters and myself went on the piss the day of my birthday. Why wouldn’t we? We were young and wanted to enjoy ourselves.
“This of course got back to Joe and Geezer and when we went to training on Thursday they couldn’t wait to pull us on the issue. Geezer and Paul McGrane took us aside and trust me when I say this - they absolutely got dug into us in a serious way. When those guys spoke you certainly listened and that came from the respect we had for them. But we knew that this was the easy part as it was only a verbal warning.”
“Geezer made the McEntees, McNultys, Diarmuid Marsden and Francie Bellew aware of what we had done and time after time during the session they buried into us with everything they had, at every opportunity. We left the pitch bloodied and bruised. They roughed us up a bit but we deserved it. It was like we had to prove ourselves all over again with Geezer and the boys so this was just a case of getting on with it and accepting it. The fact that nobody found out about this until now proves the trust we had in each other.”
August 15, 2012: Steven’s third column looked at modern day training and coaching, and offered an insight into the importance of keeping things simple sometimes.
“I laugh when I look at the amount of cones laid out at some sessions by some so-called coaches. Do they just want to make their session look sexy or do they actually want to improve the skill levels? Are they thinking of their players and their team? At the start of this year, I had an Achilles injury so I was unable to train. Our club manager wanted me to be involved in the training so he asked would I take a skill based session every week. I obliged as this was a great chance for me to pass on some of my knowledge to our lads. My warm-up consisted of every single player getting 100-150 kick passes using both feet in a ten minute period. It was all short kick passing but enough to improve them and allow them to gain more confidence. This does not happen enough.
“My very first coach Thomas Mallon drilled all the basics of the game into me at U10 level, and I can safely say they stayed with me throughout my career. He had me working on my left and right foot kick passing, high catching, side step, toe-tap etc, etc. He was brilliant at focusing on the simple skills of the game. When forwards decide to do an extra bit of work by themselves and go to the pitch for shooting practice, one thing they often try to do is score from the angles in which their scoring ratio isn’t great. But all shooting practice should be done from in front of the posts around the D area. The more times you kick points from there, the more confidence you will gain to do it from other areas of the pitch. It is that simple.”
August 29, 2012: By late August, just three teams were left in the All-Ireland race. As a man who had played for Armagh for 13 seasons, many of which they were involved in until at least late August, Steven explained just a little bit about what it takes to be a top inter-county player.
“Your social life certainly bears the brunt of being a county player. You always have to ask yourself these questions. Are you prepared to sit in at weekends while all your mates are out enjoying themselves? Are you prepared to attend weddings and not touch a drink all day? Are you even prepared to leave weddings early to attend training sessions? All of these questions are actually what happens and it happened to me time after time throughout my career.
“In 2006 I even cancelled my own son’s christening because we were down to play Tyrone in a McKenna Cup match. I did not think twice about doing this. If I didn’t I was giving someone else the opportunity to impress in the jersey that I had worked so hard for, so I was not prepared for this to happen. In 2007, I flew into Dublin from my honeymoon and boarded a plane straight away to go on a five day training camp in Spain. You might think that this is no big sacrifice, but when you have just been away from your kids for two weeks and then can’t see them for another few days, and when you have to take extra days off work at short notice, then believe me it is a sacrifice. These are some of the commitments that I had to make, so you can just imagine the level of commitment across the board from all of our players who represent their county, or even their club.”
September 19, 2012: The week before the All-Ireland final between Donegal and Mayo, Steven returned to a previous theme – the importance of keeping your feet on the ground ahead of a final.
“Donegal are slight favourites but in a match of this magnitude it is very much 50/50. The winners for me will be the team that plays the match and not the occasion. The match is what you have prepared yourself for all your life. It’s what you trained for since you were a kid so the best thing is to keep it simple and play it simple. Do what you have done all along but try to improve on it and refine it. Don’t get caught up in the circus that surrounds it. That is for the supporters and that is fantastic for them because it gives so many people a lift out of the regular doom and gloom that is stifling our country. And don’t think of the celebrations or homecomings because you will be guaranteed to fall short.
“I know this because it happened to us in 2003. We thought a lot about winning two All-Irelands in a row instead of concentrating more on the match. That year’s Ulster All-Stars ceremony was the perfect example of us getting caught up in the circus. We left training to attend the function and while there we sat together and did not mingle with anyone. Once the awards were presented we got up and left. The Tyrone guys enjoyed their night and interacted with everyone. Maybe we were just a bit too intense. We thought we were doing the right thing but I look back now and feel we should have been more relaxed as we had the final experience from the previous year. We played the occasion.”
September 26, 2012: A few days after Donegal’s memorable victory over Mayo, Steven analysed the remarkable qualities of the new champions and looked back at their incredible development under manager Jim McGuinness in such a short space of time.
“When Jimmy walked onto the pitch before the match, he was so relaxed and he took it all in his stride as if he had been there before. The whole team’s body language was impressive. If you picked the best players from Ireland, they would find it extremely difficult to break down this Donegal team. When the final whistle went you could see the relief on a lot of the players’ faces. They had finally achieved their goal and this was done in what is only the second year of a five year plan under Jimmy.
“He is a character and he has an aura about him. His players love him and they would do anything for him. One small thing I noticed was that any time a Donegal substitution was made, whatever player was coming off went out of their way to welcome their team-mate into the fray. A small thing, but it makes such a big difference and it proves how together this group of people are. They were together as one and nothing could break this down.
“There are many leaders within their camp but you have to admire Jimmy’s selection of such a young captain in Michael Murphy. He led by example from the off and almost sacrificed his own game all year for the good of the team. That was of course until he exploded into life on Sunday and showed us all exactly what an exceptional talent he is. I am grateful that I played alongside him when I represented Ireland in the International Rules. He has everything you want in a player and a leader and is totally unselfish. Last year he gave me the pass in the International Rules for my goal which allowed me to cross the 100 point barrier for Ireland. He could have gone on himself, but he opted to pass to me knowing exactly what he was doing.
“This is no longer the Donegal team that we beat in 2010. This is not the team that used to throw in the towel. This is now the Donegal team that sets the benchmark. This year they have been bigger, stronger, faster and fitter than any other team. This year they have come up against the best and they have beaten the best. This year they are the best. Jimmy is winning matches and on the evidence of this year, he will be for a very long time. You get out of life exactly what you put in and Donegal have got their just reward. Well done Donegal.”
October 12, 2012: A couple of weeks after the end of the All-Ireland championship, Steven helped his club Killeavy win the Armagh Intermediate Championship title. In his final column, Steven looked back at the long journey he had made with his club.
“I remember my first ever match. I started at left half back against Silverbridge in an U10 league game which was played in Killeavy. We won and I could not believe I got playing even though it was in defence. I did not care a damn about that though. I actually played in defence for two years until one of my managers finally realised that this was not the place for me and I slowly but surely made my way up to the full forward line. When I look back at my first ever match, the real achievement from it is that I still remain good mates with most of the boys I played with that day. That is what is really special about our clubs. The togetherness and the bonds formed. The unique friendships that are with you forever.
“You often hear it said that being successful and winning silverware with your club is a uniquely special feeling. This is because you win with the guys that you have grown up playing with and that you know so well. I now know that this is the case. Last weekend I captained our team to the Armagh Intermediate Championship. This was my first ever final for our senior team and the sense of relief and satisfaction when the final whistle went was immense. James Duffy, Paul Watters and myself have dedicated a combined total of 51 years to our senior team and this was our first victory at this level.
“Other members of our team are lucky to get to taste success so early in their senior careers. Guys like Caolan Mone, Eugene Coogan, David Markey and James Donnelly. But the good thing about this win is that now that they have tasted success, it will hopefully drive them on to strive for even more. I realised this year that regardless of whether you are playing county football or club football, if you want to be successful you must dedicate a huge amount of time and effort to the cause. That is one of the reasons why it is extremely difficult to balance playing both club and county football. It is actually almost impossible.”
All of Steven's columns, covering the 2012 GAA Football Championship, can be read by clicking here.