Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How Do You Solve a Problem Like McDonald?

XIJohn Maughan’s is the latest voice to join this strange cacophony clamouring for Ciarán McDonald to play on the inside line for County Mayo. Joe Brolly and Colm O’Rourke, the Podge and Rodge of football analysis (and let’s hope neither Joe nor Colm go shilling for the TV license like the precocious puppets – and I thought they were rebels! Bah!), were apparently making the point on the telly at half-time last Sunday that inside was the only spot for McDonald, that he was wasted out the field. Now Maughan has added his two cents, saying that Mayo need goals and Ciarán is the boy to get them.

Is An Spailpín Fánach the only man to think they’re talking through their hats?

Maughan is possibly being a little mischievous in his comments. When Maughan managed Crossmolina and in his second coming as Mayo manager, he put Ciarán McDonald at centre-half forward and left him there, so it’s likely that his comments are more a cut at the two boys who took his bloody job, and you can never blame any man for that. Nobody loves a carpet-bagger. Brolly and O’Rourke are harder to figure, and the only conclusion that An Spailpín Fánach can come up with is that neither Brolly nor O’Rourke really thinks that much about it. They come up with the usual soft chat that’s now more or less de riguer for the GAA media, as mentioned in this place before, and certainly don’t appear to bother their backsides sitting up looking at tapes, or phoning contacts in different counties, to scratch beneath the surface and find out what’s really going on – you know, like journalists are supposed to do.

An Spailpín Fánach couldn’t play football for nuts when he was of an age and hasn’t got any better now he’s old and fat, but God help me, I love the land where I was born and I try very hard to understand what I’m looking at when I go to a football game, because football is Mayo and Mayo is football. Here’s what I can figure out. Maybe I’m talking through my hat, but this makes logical sense to me. If I’m jumping the shark and completely off-base, maybe some wiser head might drop me a mail.

Ciarán McDonald is the most accurate foot passer we have in Mayo, if not Ireland. Because it is axiomatic in football that the ball should do the work, the intelligent, accurate pass is the best option a team has to open a defence and create scores. Therefore, to be a successful team, you need a centre-half forward who can collect possession gained at midfield through either high-fielding and collecting the breaks, and use that possession to feed the rest of the forward unit. McDonald is clearly the best player in Mayo to fulfil that role. If he is not, who is?

Much of the criticism of McDonald centres on his tendency to drift deeper and deeper during the course of a game. This is not a good thing of course, but would it not be more correct if we were to look at the issue from a different angle, and wonder why the cursed ball coming out from the backs is so damned slow? Because if it wasn’t, McDonald wouldn’t have to keep going back to look for the damn thing. It’s called football – Mickey Moran ought to let them kick it once and while, instead of this perpetual slobbering with handpassing that would sicken a goat.

As for the man to score goals, isn’t it odd that the management, which includes the massive intellectual force of John Morrison, you know, didn’t think of looking for a few sharp-shooters during the league, which is, of course, what the league is there for? It’s getting a little close to the bone now to be wondering when a goal-scorer will pop up. Unless I’m mistaken, Mayo’s leading goal-scorer in the league would have been either Ger Brady or Billy Joe Padden, both of whom are getting stick at the minute, proving, of course, that some people are never happy. Personally, An Spailpín would vote for An tIolar Breá Iorrais to go on the edge of the square, for the simple reason that I can’t think of anyone else on the team that tries as hard as Billy Joe. But the poor man has been shuttled about in so many different places in the last two years he mustn’t know if he’s going for a haircut or decapitation on any given Sunday.

As for McDonald himself, he’s the best player Mayo have, and the best Mayo have had for some time. Brolly and O’Rourke must share a lot of the blame for the misconceptions about McDonald over the years, with their hateful and lazy characterisation of him and Conor Mortimer as “Swedish maids” in 2004. The two experts (An expert is the boy that doesn’t have to back up his opinions with money, as Chuck Noll once dryly observed), who are paid good shillings for the job that they do, never bothered to look beyond the bleached blond hair, which is lazy in the extreme. There is no other word for it. Conor Mortimer and Ciarán McDonald are as different, personality-wise, as chalk and cheese, but Brolly / O'Rourke analysis didn't go beyond the haircuts. Is this the Sunday Game, or What Not to Wear with Trinny and Susannah? For God's sake. If either expert had bothered to do his homework he would have quickly found out the differences between the two men; instead, we’re left with the caricature. Brolly and O’Rourke ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The other reason people object to McDonald is because they feel he’s too damned big for his britches, and want to see his cough softened. It’s not that terribly noble a thought, of course, but it’s very true to human nature. Well, not all footballers are created equal, whatever the politically correct priesthood would tell you, and when a manager discovers an incandescent talent like McDonald he builds the team around him, and doesn’t try to break a butterfly on a wheel.

Even the most rigorous of team men, the managers who are all system, system, system, know that there is such a thing as talent, and that you have to make exceptions for talent. Consider Jack Charlton, who famously left David O’Leary out in the cold as an example of his rigid rule. The same Charlton made exception after exception for Paul McGrath, for the simple reason that Charlton quickly realised that, for all the reputation O’Leary had, Charlton could do without O’Leary but he could not do without McGrath, because McGrath was playing at a different level.

Man management. Talent management. You don’t pick it up from books in the self-help section in Eason’s about Tao. But all County Mayo is hoping and praying that the current management have enough of it to let Ciarán McDonald give full expression to his talent, and that’s the only way they’ll have a shot at winning the All-Ireland. We’ll miss him when he’s gone, you know.

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