Cahair O’Kane: Jim McGuinness’s outside-the-box thinking is a real threat to Derry

What excites you about Saturday’s game is wondering what Jim McGuinness has up his sleeve. He has never come to a championship match unarmed.

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

One of the great successes of Jim McGuinness's first term in charge of Donegal was the ability to think outside the box and bring something inventive and different to big games. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

THE last time Derry were beaten in the Ulster Championship it was the sideline swing of Patrick McBrearty’s left boot that did it.

On a strange afternoon where just 400 fans were allowed in to Ballybofey as the effects of Covid began to wear off, Chrissy McKaigue hadn’t given McBrearty any spare change for 72 minutes.

But with their last attack, the now-Donegal captain hung wide, timed his cut in and kicked the winner.Ten months later Rory Gallagher took his team to Omagh and wiped the floor with reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone.

Since then they’ve won back-to-back Anglo Celt Cups.Within that they’ve beaten Monaghan twice and won finals against Donegal and Armagh by the narrowest of margins.

It was funny after a weekend off to flip Monday morning’s Irish News to the back page and read what Kieran McGeeney had said after his side’s win over Fermanagh.

“We got beat by Derry last year on penalties and everything Derry’s doing is f***ing brilliant and everything we’re doing is a load of shite.”

It was funny because his words were laced in truth.

Armagh came closest to beating Derry because the same really aggressive high press that led to goals against Fermanagh at the weekend was in evidence last summer in Clones.

It made life so difficult for the Oak Leafers that day.

The only other Ulster team to really cause them problems in that time was Monaghan in the drawn round-robin game in Celtic Park last year.

Ciaran Meenagh would have anticipated them going without either Jack McCarron or Conor McManus after what had happened a few weeks previous in Omagh, but not both.

They made Derry think, made them reorganise, knocked them out of their comfort zone.

The same theory has begun to grow a bit in Donegal, that McBrearty and Oisin Gallen in the one team won’t work from a defensive standpoint.

McBrearty in particular has been doing his best to rail against it. He’s working harder off the ball than he’s ever worked.

When one is your captain and the other gave Derry hell last summer, Jim McGuinness might be inclined to chance it.

What excites you about Saturday’s game is wondering what McGuinness has up his sleeve.

He has never come to a championship match unarmed.

There were just two minutes and 20 seconds gone in the 2012 All-Ireland final when Karl Lacey skipped around the challenge of Seamus O’Shea, looked up and delivered the perfect diagonal ball on top of Michael Murphy.

It was already the fifth time Donegal had tried to execute the plan.

In the month between the semi-final and final, they ran that exact move hundreds of times between MacCumhaill Park and Johnstown House.

They trialled it off both Murphy and Colm McFadden, knowing that Ger Cafferky would go to one of them and Kevin Keane to the other.

Whoever was on Keane would play closest to goal because that’s where the physical mismatch would be. The other man would clear out and leave space.

When Donegal beat D’Unbeatables two years later in the semi-final, the same long delivery sparked them to life.

Rory Kavanagh’s diagonal to Murphy broke off for Colm McFadden to feed Ryan McHugh.

But the real winning of it was in the space in behind Dublin’s midfield.

Dublin realised after their defeat to Donegal in 2014 that you cannot go pushing up and attacking full throttle into a massed defence and instead started to put the emphasis on patient retention of possession
Ryan McHugh's driving runs in behind the Dublin midfield in 2014 was part of the element of surprise that helped Donegal land one of the great championship victories in their history.

On Paul Durcan’s kickouts, McHugh’s training was to sprint first towards his own goal then pivot quickly and take off the other way, buying him a few precious yards of space in behind.

Just like the Tyrone and Armagh teams that went before them, routinely battered for having the temerity to defend, that Donegal generation’s impact on football has been distilled right down to its defensive template.

But one of their great strengths was their ability to surprise and to bring something different to their attack.

They had it done unto them in the final, when all the focus was on Kieran Donaghy.

He had come out short as Stephen O’Brien’s shot got half-blocked, and Neil Gallagher followed him as the spare man.

That left Paul Geaney, under-rated in the air, against Paddy McGrath.

The goal Geaney snaffled off separated the sides in the end.

When Donegal went to Armagh the following year, by then under Rory Gallagher, they isolated James Morgan in front of goal in one-v-ones and put the ball into the sky.

On the ground, few defenders in Ulster were more tenacious. But Morgan couldn’t do anything about the Donegal men being bigger than him.

Within two minutes, Patrick McBrearty had a goal. He almost got another. Other times Neil Gallagher rotated inside.

What you’ll notice about these examples is that they’re all about scoring goals.

Sometimes it can be more of a nutcracker than a sledgehammer. A bit subtler.

Derry are the best goalscorers in Ireland besides Dublin.

Donegal got first-hand experience of it last year. The game in Ballybofey was tighter than many expected.

But all three goals came off Derry targeting Caolan McGonagle and Jason McGee when they were in defensive positions. They lined pace up against them and that’s where they broke the line on all three, and for other chances too.

All of the above is the context in which Donegal’s trip to Celtic Park on Saturday evening is exciting.

Everything we know about Jim McGuinness’s managerial career tells us that they will not be orthodox, that this game won’t just look like their league final win over Armagh, where the two teams just went back and forward in 14-man waves.

With his new iPad, Eamonn Fitzmaurice illustrated in fine detail on The Sunday Game exactly how Derry were defending against Dublin without a plus-one and that each man was fronting up within the defensive zone.

Within that, Donegal will look for opportunity, perhaps from their playbook of old.

Do they look, for instance, to create a physical advantage by attaching a Michael Langan or a Jason McGee to Conor McCluskey or Diarmuid Baker and then drag them close to goal in an attempt to create an aerial contest?

When Derry squeeze the kickout, watch out for Donegal’s rehearsed patterns beneath the break and how they try to use Shaun Patton’s accuracy and distance to their advantage.

There are few teams and few managers willing to really upset the new world order, to go off-script and try something really bold.

Part of football’s problem is the prescriptive way that almost everyone attacks.

Slow build-up, get bodies up the wings, line up runners, maybe pop the odd wee dinky kick in for a mark.

And it’s grand where you’re Derry or Dublin or Kerry because, individually, those one-v-ones you’re trying to create suit you because you’re bigger and better and faster than the man you’re lining up to.

It doesn’t work for others and yet so few seem to want to try anything different.

Donegal will have targeted this game from the moment the draw was made.

It would be different if they were in a position to let a chance like this go past and worry about bigger fish later in the year, but they aren’t.

So they will bring something different, something inventive, something troublesome.

All of which makes Donegal a really, really dangerous opponent for Derry.