Cavan Gaels have to leave it late to have any chance of disrupting the Slaughtneil machine
Cavan Gaels face a problem that has perplexed and beaten all of Derry and the rest of Ulster for the last couple of years. How do you actually beat Slaughtneil?
It is not just the fact that they have accrued such an impressive record number of wins. It is the manner of those wins that have left the biggest impression.
In Championship football, the ability to eke out wins regularly is the X-factor.
That ability to always get across that winning line, no matter the circumstances, is the greatest of qualities a team can possess and Slaughtneil have it in spades.
That winning quality is an almost mythical thing to try to achieve. It is essentially ‘uncoachable’ in itself as it is actually not one specific aspect but a multitude of smaller important qualities that add up to it.
Right across the team, strong traits of leadership and courage are needed to look to get on the ball and be involved in the biggest plays.
There must be an extreme competitive instinct right across the Slaughtneil team, yet cool, composed heads in the face of battle to not get carried away. Most importantly, right across the team, there must be a high level of skill and decision-making to allow players to routinely make the correct in-play decisions and execute them regardless of conditions, fatigue or pressure.
It is this last element that is of particular interest for any team looking to take Slaughtneil down. The remarkable thing about them is the quality of their overall play and the absence of a reliance on any one particular ‘Star Man’. The quality is epitomised not by their ability to pull off high skill or difficult moves or plays, but by the exceptionally low number of mistakes they make.
The famous saying ‘keep it simple’ could apply to Slaughtneil’s gameplan. It’s a case of the right man doing the right thing at the right time.
Each player within the set-up seems to be fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses and they play to those strengths.
Rarely do you see random players taking on risky passes or shots or solo runs that are perhaps a bit beyond them.
They have their asigned men for that. The likes of ‘Sammy’ Bradley will regularly pull off moments of brilliance, but for the most part, Slaughtneil’s play is about the simple options chosen and executed time and again. This becomes more and more prominent as games reach the critical last 10 minutes and it is in this period when their ‘game management’ comes into its own.
Against Omagh, I saw them protect a one-point lead and play out the final 10 minutes by barely letting their opponents get a touch.
A short kick from defence came out the right wing, where they played about with the ball until Omagh eventually pushed up. Then, with a sudden drive, Brendan Rogers took the ball and ran hard out where, inside 45 yards, the chasing and despairing Omagh pack committed the foul Slaughtneil were looking. They hit the free-kick back to the goalkeeper and started again.
Three times in-a-row this play happened, killing at least several minutes and never once looking like they were going to lose the ball. This maner of control kills an opposition.
If we look across the past decade at serial winners, the traits mentioned above appear to be shared.
Teams of relatively even quality without over-reliance on any one individual, leaders throughout the team and ability to minimise mistakes yet maximise punishment on opposition lapses and, above all, else an ability to close out games.
Think Kilkenny hurlers, Dublin footballers or, on the club front, Crossmaglen Rangers.
Illustrious company, but Slaughtneil do have those machine-like traits. They just need the All-Ireland to rubber stamp their standing... but that is for another time.
For now, Cavan Gaels must take on the challenge posed by this apparent machine and they must first face up to a few facts.
Firstly, the chance of Slaughtneil having an off-day appears to be next to none.
Secondly, Slaughtneil have come up against most tactical systems at this stage and have had the answers so this is not going to be won by some ingenious tactical plan executed by the Gaels.
Thirdly, Slaughtneil are very unlikely to crumble when the going gets tough. In fact, if anything, they strengthen and they are particularly adept at strangling the life out of games when able to do so.
So what are the options?
Like taking on Dublin, the first thing you must do is play to the very best of your ability.
This appears obvious, but it is hard to achieve and most teams deny themselves even a chance against big guns by simply not playing to their own potential. This also means playing to your own strengths rather than trying to come up with some specific plan to stop Slaughtneil.
It means players focusing on their individual performance level.
In saying this, like the other illustrious teams mentioned previously, Slaughtneil know how to make games a battle which tests the fight in their opponents. Individually, and as a team, Cavan Gaels must be able to stand toe to toe with Slaughtneil and not be found wanting.
By the same stretch, they must not get caught up in trying to out-muscle or fight them as that is wasted energy.
Critically, though, Cavan Gaels’ chance rests in the fact that most of these type of games will come down to those final 10 minutes. I remember when Tyrone were preparing for Armagh in our big battles in the noughties.
One of Armagh’s key traits was strength in the final 10 minutes.
Mickey Harte got inside our heads so that we essentially ended up targeting that 10 minutes as the time of our peak competitive performance level. We essentially told ourselves that Armagh believe they are better and stronger in the final 10 minutes than we are – the obvious response was to go all out in those final 10 minutes and challenge this perceived superiority complex.
It was, of course, mind games on Mickey’s behalf, but I remember clearly a collective drive for home when those final 10 minutes came which proved crucial in the end.
Cavan Gaels must prepare themselves similarly to take on Slaughtneil when they are apparently at their most invincible.
It is no easy task, but without it, the game will follow the same script we have witnessed time and time again. Teams getting close but falling short.
In any case, I think Slaughtneil have more quality across the pitch than Cavan Gaels and, for once, they might give their supporters an easier day out and have it won before the last 10 minutes arrive.
If not, then maybe – just maybe – Cavan Gaels will be ready for that all-important final assault to see if the machine, for once, malfunctions.