JUST nine months on, it would be easy to forget the level of antipathy in Ireland last September toward Jim McGuinness and his lumbering creation, who had squeezed the free-flowing life out of the All-Ireland semi-final.
At best, McGuinness’ facial hair invited comparisons to Jose Mourinho, at worst, to some sort of antichrist of Gaelic football. The hand-wringing on The Sunday Game and in the newspapers went on through the winter, fuelled by the public and mean-minded cutting loose of Kevin Cassidy.
It was followed by a spat with DCU boss Niall Moyna over Martin McElhinney not playing for the college in the O’Byrne Cup semi-final win against Meath; and even if it appeared to this column that McGuinness was completely in the right on that occasion, Donegal’s popularity among observers and pundits was at an all-time low.
You would have thought it would take some incredible football to turn around that perception; it turns out, however, that all it takes are solid wins against Cavan and Derry, two of the poorest football teams in all of Western Europe, in any code.
We are often guilty in football of judging a team solely on their most recent results; thus, Donegal were deemed a more attacking side than they were in 2011 for putting up 1-16 against Cavan, a stance that ignores the fact that they scored 2-14 against the same opposition last year.
By the same methods, Tyrone are not considered serious All-Ireland contenders because of their loss to Kildare in Croke Park, and the fact that they have won 13 of their 14 football matches this year and that they were evenly matched with the Lilies until the last eight minutes is an inconvenient, discarded truth.
As usual, the reality in both cases is probably somewhere in between; just as Donegal are not suddenly the sport’s answer to the Spain soccer team, nor can Tyrone be discounted from all calculations on the basis of one late burst from Kieran McGeeney’s outfit.
Still, the bookies make Donegal well-cooked favourites, and McGuinness, ever disgusted with his county’s under-achievements of the recent past, will know that the last time that was the case was before the Ulster semi-final of 2007. Final score that day: Tyrone 2-15, Donegal 1-7.
Even if Saturday goes like a dream for the Red Hands, they will not win by anything resembling such a margin, because it is simply impractical to expect to kick 2-15 against a side that defends with such zeal in such numbers.
Similarly, for all the talk of Donegal 2.0, the favourites are also likely to be back closer to their low-scoring ways of old, because this time the opposition is a) not a team that was threatened with relegation to division four, like Cavan, and b) will not be inclined to throw in the towel midway through the second half, like Derry.
For all the “think of the children” talk of the damage that Donegal are doing the game, we should pause and think how boring football would be if they were still mired in their soft-core, off-the-cuff ways of the past decade, guaranteed to capitulate to the first heavy-hitter they met. The way they play now may not be pretty, but it is fascinating.
Tyrone have always been just as interesting. If any Gaelic football team does bear comparison with the one from another code that contains Xabi and Xavi, we reckon it is Harte’s men from the noughties, and it was down to the manager’s insistence that all his footballers be able to kick off both feet.
The lazy perception as they gathered three All-Ireland’s was that their template was built on blanket defence; that may have been one of the foundations, but in our book, the key to Tyrone’s incredible success was an array of players who are supremely comfortable with a size 5. It was that emphasis on technique that, for example, made their brilliant football in a downpour against Dublin in 2008 possible.
Tyrone are not as good any more, but they are moulded on the same principles. They don’t worry about fielding ball at midfield or target-men full-forwards; they simply put possession first, with the hard-to-argue-with reasoning that if the opposition don’t have the ball, they cannot cause hurt.
Meanwhile, the mythology around Donegal’s preparation and determination grows. One article I read this week was about unnamed Derry players speaking of McGuinness’ side’s fearsome conditioning and constant shouting in code to each other as the match progressed.
In some respects, McGuinness appears to have taken Donegal’s preparations to gridiron levels, with tweaks to the gameplan constantly reinforced in training by painstaking repetition.
This is easily the most interesting clash of the football championship so far, and a signal that the real blood-and-thunder is upon us. Expect a scoreline closer to the 2-6 to 0-9 of last year than a 2-15 apiece shootout; if that doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t watch.
Despite a conviction that the teams are closer matched than people seem to think, Tyrone’s lack of Sean Cavanagh and Kyle Coney, the fact that Owen Mulligan and Brian McGuigan are still factors when clearly past their prime, and Donegal’s grim win-at-all-costs methods makes us think that McGuinness, whether you consider him the antichrist or the messiah, will be presiding over another Ulster final appearance.