Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Running Men - Donegal, Mayo and the State of Modern Football

There was a schoolyard game in the 1970s in Scoil Pádraig, Béal an Átha that may have been played in every schoolyard, or may have been unique to that particular grove of academe. Boys would line up at one end of the yard, hands joined, forming a human chain. A single boy would then run at this chain, choosing the weakest link – invariably small, fat kids with glasses, not dissimilar to your correspondent – and attempt to burst through the cordon. Those that did, did. Those that didn’t were surrounded, and probably shipped a few belts for their pains.

It will be extremely hard not to flash back to the days of the old school yard in Croke Park at four o’clock this coming Sunday, when Mayo and Donegal will both play a version of modern football that bears a closer resemblance to that schoolyard hurly-burly than to the sublime elegance of Ciarán McDonald, Michael Meehan, Maurice Fitzgerald or Matt Connor. But there it is. This is the modern game, and if you want to win, you have to play it.

The eagerness with which the modern philosophy has been embraced by the Mayo football public is an interesting study of the conflict between idealism and practicality. Mayo were always a Fancy Dan, tricks-on-the-ball football county. For Mayo, it wasn’t enough that the county should win the All-Ireland; Mayo should win the All-Ireland playing Mayo football.

Now, the penny has dropped that Mayo’s commitment to Mayo football may be one of the reasons why they lost all those finals in recent years. And, having failed to beat them, Mayo have now decided to join them. The fact that James Horan’s fighting talk at the start of the week was received without a murmur of dissent shows just how much Mayo have bought into the new orthodoxy. Substance trumps style every day of the week.

Of course, this is not to say that there are no skilful players out there. For all the talk of the Donegal System, Donegal would have won nothing if they did not have players of sufficiently exceptional ability to operate the System. Karl Lacey, Mark McHugh, Michael Murphy – you don’t get many of those in the one crop. There’s a case to be made for Murphy being the best forward in the country.

People thought same old Mayo when that first goal crashed home in the All-Ireland final, but how many forwards other than Murphy would have been able to score it? How many could have made the catch, broken into space and rifled home the shot? Murphy is worth his weight in gold.

Mayo have players too. Mayo are looking at what could be a golden generation of players who are young, talented and natural leaders. They’re on every line, and there are a few on the bench as well, chomping at the bit to get on. It’s a heady brew for supporters who have supped the bitter gall in the past.

Livening up the Sunday Game
Not just that, but the current Mayo team are ideally set up to deal with the Donegal System. Darragh Ó Sé wrote a how-to guide for playing against the System in his excellent and essential Irish Times column after Donegal beat Down in the Ulster semi-final. Kicking it long won’t work – the ball may travel faster than the man, but that doesn’t make any difference if the man doesn’t have to travel at all. It doesn’t make any difference is the man is just waiting there for the dropping ball with two or three of his best friends for company. Backs in the System eat that for breakfast.

Modern football is about possession in collision. You have to retain the ball when you collide with them, and you have to strip it when they collide with you. And then you have to be able to take your scores in what space is afforded to you outside of the slaughter zone. That’s how you win.

Last year, Donegal played with an aura not seen since those old Ready Brek ads of the early ‘eighties. Not only were good players playing a System they trusted and believed in, but the System was the talk of the country. It was like football alchemy, a magical formula for turning base metal to gold. Shell-shocked and beaten men limped off pitches in Ulster and Dublin, wondering what in God’s name had just happened them. They’d never experienced the like of it before.

But that was then, and this is now. The aura is now gone from Donegal – after an imperious display against Tyrone in their first game out, Donegal struggled when Down used Donegal’s own weapons against them and then Donegal got wiped out in Clones by Monaghan. Donegal recovered to win against Laois, but Laois isn’t the most prized scalp in the country.

The pivotal question before last year’s All-Ireland Final was what could Mayo do to stop Donegal? This Sunday, it’s about what Donegal can do to stop Mayo. By all accounts, Donegal’s defensive setup in Carrick-on-Shannon made their previous incarnations look like the Harlem Globetrotters, and this will most likely be key to Donegal on Sunday. The longer they can defend and keep the score down the more likely they’ll be to win it.

Mayo, by contrast, will want to reverse last year’s game and get an early lead because if Monaghan proved nothing else, they proved the System is badly suited to chasing down leads. Aidan O’Shea gets a certain amount of stick for running into tackles; on Sunday this will be a feature, not a bug.

And there are the intangibles too. What will the weather be like? What will the ref be like? What happens if someone’s sent off? If someone’s sent off, will it be a Colm Coyle or a Liam McHale? These are things on which destiny can hinge. But all things being equal, Mayo look good for avenging the 2012 All-Ireland, and competing in their third semi-final in a row. Run on, you true-hearted boys. Run on.