Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: The children of Donegal

SON: Dad, why did you name my sister Jolene?

Dad: Because your mother loved the song Jolene.

Son: Thanks Dad.

Dad: No problem, Jimmy’s Winning Matches.

On Sunday in Celtic Park, Gavin Devlin was spied on top of the stand on the gantry, carefully watching Donegal as they wore down Tyrone. “A week too late,” Fergal McCusker texted me.

Tyrone set up in exactly the right way against them. They just didn’t have their sense of purpose. More importantly, they didn’t have Jimmy McGuinness. So, coming down the stretch, Tyrone made stupid mistakes and Donegal didn’t.

With a minute to go in ordinary time and Tyrone a point up, Seanie O’Donnell had a choice. Play the ball back to the unmarked Niall Morgan and win the game. Or do something stupid. He decided to do something stupid and soloed into the Donegal blanket like the bull at Pamplona. The voracious Donegal men gratefully turned him over and got their equaliser. After that, the result was inevitable. Mickey Harte had made sure of that.

On the 21st of February this year, the Fermanagh midfielder Ryan Jones texted me, “Derry won’t be far away this year.” I texted back: “Very worried about Jimmy though in the first round. Their ploy to go for the lobbed goal when the ‘keeper comes to midfield for the kickout could kill us.” On Saturday evening, Ryan texted me: “You were spot on.”

Before the game, my brother Proinnsias texted me to say, “What do you think our boy?” I texted back, “I think we will lose.” “Why?” “Because Jimmy isn’t confused and Mickey Harte is.” Enda Gormley said to me before the throw in, “Don’t be so f**king negative.”

What happened in the first round was a predictable managerial catastrophe. Jimmy McGuinness is not a genius, but he is logical and clear minded, which is enough to set him apart from everyone else in the managerial cartel.

He knew that Donegal could not beat Derry in a 50/50 contest. He would of course do all the things he does with his teams: No fouling inside the scoring zone (they conceded one free from a marginal high tackle over the 80 minutes); clever shadowing of the opponent onto their weak foot; super fit; clever kick-out press; hard running; ferocious application.

But that wasn’t going to be enough against us. He needed a weakness. He needed something that could create goals, and more than one of them. Our ‘keeper-midfielder was the obvious solution to his problem.

Two years ago in the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, Damien Comer scored the killer goal into an empty net with Odhrán Lynch 50 metres behind him. That wasn’t a tactic Galway worked on. The Galway lads did it on the spur of the moment. Jimmy is not a spur of the moment kind of guy.

He does not confer with anyone on the sideline. Like Alex Ferguson he has the courage to make his own mind up. When a Donegal man had a chance for the lob from a Donegal kick-out early on and didn’t take it, he was enraged. He was not enraged long. A few minutes later, the ball was in the empty net, exactly as planned, and his hounds were up and running.

That first embarrassing goal was of enormous importance. Firstly, it was an adrenaline shot into the Donegal players’ hearts. Jimmy had told them this would happen. He had worked on it religiously in training. And here it was, unfolding just as their guru had promised.

Secondly, it sent a cold chill across Derry hearts. Jimmy was climbing into our heads. The anxiety rang around the stadium. My wife rang me to say, “Marty Morrissey on RTÉ radio has just said “Can Mickey not see what everyone else can see?”

The Derry lads gathered themselves and by half time had recovered their composure, coming in just one point down. “We are f**ked,” I said to Gormley.

All it would have taken was a simple half-time instruction to the ‘keeper: Stay on your line. And an instruction to his half-backs to drop back on the Donegal kick-out. But what was blatantly obvious to the 14,000 people in attendance and the hundreds of thousands watching at home was not obvious to the two Tyrone men.

Warty Kelly from Dungiven, corner-forward on our great 80s club team said once, “As soon as we went two points down in a championship match, I headed for the sideline.” Jimmy mustn’t have believed his luck, when instead of sending the ‘keeper back to do his job, Mickey started taking off the corner forwards. First one, then the other.

Next up, that other Golden Oldie: Put the big man on the edge of the square and kick her into him. So, Conor Glass was sent into the square and promptly disappeared inside Donegal’s 15-man defence. It was humiliating for Conor, who is not in the habit of being humiliated, and embarrassing for every Derry person.

So, our boys were left to their certain destruction. The second lobbed goal was pure Laurel and Hardy, the keeper falling over himself into the net and tangling in it with the ball. “Mickey,” I roared, “Tell your ‘keeper to stay on his line.” But it was too late.

Like the 2014 semi-final, when Jim Gavin refused to budge even when Philly McMahon begged him to drop a sweeper back, Donegal were exuberant, rampant, Derry shocked and bewildered. By the time the fourth goal went in (Derry’s ‘keeper trailing a full 40 metres behind the scorer), the Donegal crowd were laughing.

On The Sunday Game the following night, Mickey’s clubman Enda McGinley chose his words like an Iraqi hostage on a video message saying he was being treated like a king. When the giveaway goals were shown, Enda put on a serious expression and said, “Mickey will see that when he looks at it.” Note to Enda: Stevie Wonder would have seen that.

Amazingly, until Jimmy returned, no manager has ever thought of taking advantage of the fact that many teams leave their net empty for the opposing kick-out. Now and again we had a good chuckle as a ‘keeper was embarrassed, but these were isolated moments. Just a fortnight ago, Cavan shocked Monaghan after Rory Beggan got caught for another Laurel and Hardy moment. But (and it seems ridiculous to even write this sentence) no manager until Jimmy realised the value of repeatedly kicking the ball into the opponent’s empty net.

Jimmy’s ambush was a triumph. Indeed, even for a suffering Derry man, it was hard not to appreciate his audacity and execution. His single mindedness. His balls. The wandering goalies of Ireland have been warned: You have had your fun chaps.

Interestingly, there is one goalkeeper I know who never leaves his area. A goalie who has never been lobbed. A goalie with nine All-Ireland medals. If it is good enough for Stephen Cluxton it is good enough for the rest of us.

Tyrone watched and learned. Niall Morgan, the best all round goalie in Ireland, was ultra careful.

There is an episode of Columbo where an eminent psychiatrist trains two Dobermans to kill when the word ‘Rosebud’ is said in their presence. Otherwise, they are docile and friendly. On the word ‘Rosebud’ they tear out the throat of the victim.

Only once in the 100 minutes did the slim possibility of a lobbed goal emerge. Morgan was out of goals and Donegal intercepted. The Donegal boys, programmed by Dr Pavlov, pricked their ears up and went for the throat. The crowd went wild. Tyrone went into emergency mode. A desperate covering run saved the day. Temporarily.

Afterwards, Jimmy spoke brilliantly of the children of Donegal and the importance of Gaelic football to his community.

Unlike Harte, who was superglued to the Sam Maguire when they had it, Donegal football is never about Jimmy. I felt almost jealous of his players. Jealous of the great adventure they are on. Jealous that they have such an inspiring, clever and committed leader. Jealous of the life lessons they are learning.

I looked at his backroom team: Colm McFadden and Neil McGee and the rest of them and was jealous at their Donegalness. Their integrity. Their absolute loyalty and togetherness. A journey whose purpose is the only important one: the good of the people of Donegal.

And then I thought of us.

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