The power of planning
JOE KERNAN famously said that his Armagh team took so long to perfect plan A that there simply wasn’t time for Plan B. “Anyway” he said, “What happens if Plan B doesn’t work?” It was, and is, a deeply interesting comment.
Sunday’s football final brings together two teams whose managers understand exactly what Big Joe meant.
If Gaelic football has changed rapidly over the last ten years, in the last two it has been transformed. Both James Horan and Jim McGuinness have reworked Gaelic football, harnessing ideas that have been around in professional field sports for many years.
If either team could somehow be transported back in a time machine to any era, they would be invincible. The statistics make this point unarguable. This Mayo team would easily have won those lost All-Irelands in the mid 90s and 2000s. Likewise, Mark McHugh’s Donegal would have hammered his dad’s group, talented and all as they were. Modern football is no place for aimless drop kicks.
Plan A is the key to Donegal and Mayo’s inexorable rise.
Vince Lombardi, the American football innovator widely regarded as the first modern coach, famously said that his team never lost, “Sometimes we just run out of time.”
Like the Donegal regime, every aspect of the game was pored over until a better solution was found.
Linebacker Jerry Kramer wrote about missing a tackle once in a game they had won easily. At the squad’s daily video analysis session next evening, Lombardi was apoplectic with fury at his star. Jerry noted in his diary “Vince liked that bit of the film so much he showed it to all of us 19 times. 19 times I saw myself miss that block. Next time we run that play, I won’t miss the block.”
Lombardi’s approach was to introduce a new play by rehearsing it 100 times, until each man was doing precisely what coach wanted. Every skill, drill, play and strategy was repeated until it became automatic.
Lombardi’s obsession was the elimination of mistakes. A rookie and college all-star who could run the 100 metres in 9.3 seconds dropped the ball once in practice.
“There’s no place round here for fumblers and bumblers” screamed Lombardi, “if you fumble again you’re gone.”
Thereafter Lombardi made him carry a football with him wherever he was, “ even when you’re sitting on the can.”
In any new regime, the players give the manager a honeymoon. If they see that everything that has been planned works out on match day, they throw their shoulders to the wheel in earnest.
At Glenswilly’s medal presentation back in early January, Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher sipped spring water as all around them pint glasses ran dry. When I asked about this sacrifice, Michael explained they were up at 6.45am next morning for a weights session in Letterkenny.
“It must be very tough for you” I suggested.
“Not a bit Joe, I love it. The camaraderie is great. We get great satisfaction from it.”
As Jerry Kramer put it, “We follow Vince’s instructions and we win.”
Look around. All winners do precisely the same.
When Guardiola oversaw Barcelona’s domination of world football, he had a system with five rigid rules.
Rule 1: Press fiercely the second you lose possession in the other team’s defensive area. Guardiola realised if the opponent can be tackled that instant, the way to goal is clear.
Rule 2: The 5 second rule. If within five seconds you haven’t won the ball back, then retreat and form a compact 10 man wall. The width of the wall is 25 metres making it virtually impenetrable.
Rule 3: Keep your passes less than 10 metres. This means that the ten outfield players remain in a compact shape. If they lose the ball, they are already in position to tackle back.
Rule 4: If an opponent mis-controls the ball or turns his back towards the goal he is attacking, press him in numbers.
Rule 5: The 3-1 rule: If an opposing player gets the ball anywhere near Barcelona’s penalty area, then one of Barcelona’s four defenders advance to tackle the man with the ball, and the other three will assemble in a ring about two or three metres behind the tackler. And so it goes, each player following instructions that have been rehearsed a thousand times.
When Chelsea beat them last year in the Champions League by defending along the edge of their penalty area in two lines of five, Barca’s passing rule (Rule 3) was heavily criticised by the pundits.
“They have no Plan B,” said Andy Townsend.
Mourinho would have laughed at that observation. When he began with Inter, he ruthlessly enforced the rule that at all times in training, there must be at least five players behind the ball. Video cameras were used and any breaches of the rule were savagely punished.
Training sessions last precisely 90 minutes. On their first day, Real’s players arrived to find 30 different drills set out. Jose explained to journalists that these 30 drills were designed to teach the players his defensive/counter attacking method.
“They don’t realise they are learning it in their DNA until they play their first important match.”
In April, when I wrote that Donegal would win the All-Ireland, I had not factored Mayo in at all.
But watching and rewinding their game against Dublin, it is now apparent that this is a clash of the two best teams in the country.
Mayo and Donegal are better than Cork or Kerry. Both are modern, systematic and ferocious.
Put another way, like the very best teams in any sport, both are wholly reliant on Plan A. I am surprised by the extent of Mayo’s improvement. They are – unlike previous Mayo teams in All-Irelands – serious contenders.
But I pick Donegal. Less can go wrong with their plan. They are more clinical than Mayo.
Most importantly, they have consistently demonstrated the absolute composure that is the hallmark of champions.