Attack-minded Donegal putting best foot forward
By John Harrington
When Donegal won one All-Ireland and three Ulster titles in four years under then manager Jim McGuinness from 2011 to 2014, their success was based on a very effective, defensive style of football.
But then the all-conquering Dublin team arrived on the scene and developed a style of play that has won them five All-Irelands in a row and rendered the blanket defences of the early noughties obsolete.
The game has moved on, and it’s starting to look like Donegal have now caught up and are moving with it again.
If they defeat Cavan on Sunday they’ll achieve something they never did in the McGuinness era – three Ulster titles in a row – and they’ll have done it by playing a more expansive brand of football.
The team has evolved nicely under current manager Declan Bonner, who is keen to give much of the credit for their attack-minded game-plan to team coach and former Mayo manager, Stephen Rochford.
“We looked at changing the style when I came in,” says Bonner. “We were used to a blanket defence and getting numbers back. It maybe went stale to a degree.
“We wanted to let players express themselves more. I got Stephen in for the second year. He comes from a really strong coaching background. I felt that he was the right fit.
“He was in with a successful Mayo team that just came up short. He has brought that experience which is important. He has been very, very good.”
One of the most striking aspects of Donegal’s dominant victory over Armagh in last weekend’s Ulster SFC semi-final was the way in which they pressed up high on Armagh’s kick-outs.
As defensive systems go it was a very offensive one, and it yielded great dividends as Armagh were forced to kick long where they had little joy against Donegal’s men-mountains in the middle third of the field.
“For any team, it’s about getting a balance,” says Bonner. “You need the defensive set up right and you have to make sure you have attacking options.
“We work on that every night. It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. The most pleasing thing for me on Saturday was the work rate of the lads. It was great to see that in action.”
Donegal’s kick-out strategy is very effective at both ends of the field.
They push up high on the opposition's, and because their goalkeeper Shaun Patton is such a brilliant kicker of the ball his ability to find team-mates with laser-guided passes give Donegal a great platform off which to attack.
“There’s always room for improvement and we’re always looking to improve,” says Bonner.
“We continue to work on all aspects of our game. Those facets are vital.
“Shaun’s re-starts have been pretty good but we keep looking for improvements, the small margins. Shaun looks for that himself, being the professional that he is.”
Donegal have been given extra impetus this year by the blossoming of young players like Peadar Mogan, Niall O’Donnell, and Michael Langan who all play the game with great dash and ambition.
“I’m a great believer in taking young lads in,” says Bonner.
“If they’re good enough, they’re old enough. They have come in with a seriously good attitude. Just because you have a talent doesn’t mean you’ll be a good inter-county footballer.
“You have to have that commitment to the cause. From squad point of view, it’s important to freshen things up every year. We always look at players who can come in and give us extra energy. They have fitted into the group well.”
Donegal are raging hot favourites to defeat Cavan on Sunday, but Bonner is wary of the threat posed by a team that has produced already come back from the dead in victories over Monaghan and Down.
“I’ve known (Cavan manager) Mickey (Graham) for a long number of years,” says Bonner.
“He did a brilliant job down in Longford before he came back to the Cavan seniors. They’re in a second Ulster final. Their match against Monaghan seemed gone and they pulled that one out.
“They looked dead and buried against Down, but they showed great resilience to win the game. There is a huge football tradition in Cavan. I know it. My work takes me into Cavan and there are some great GAA people in Cavan. We have to be ready for that challenge.
“They’ve used the bench well. The introduction of Conor Madden had a real positive effect yesterday. He kicked some brilliant scores and was a huge threat. Thomas Galligan was very, very effective and Gearoid McKiernan, when he was needed most, rose to the occasion.
“They have a lot of good players with great experience.
“We’ll take nothing for granted and we’ll get ready for the challenge. Ulster titles aren’t handed out easily.”