A joke spread like wildfire among the GAA community last year following Donegal’s defeat to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Donegal’s ultra-defensive tactics didn’t win them the match, and it didn’t win them any new friends, with traditionalists quick to criticise and make fun out of Jim McGuinness’s side.
‘Did you hear about Donegal’s bus journey home after the match? Colm McFadden sat up beside the bus driver and everyone else crammed into the back seat!’
McFadden cut a lonely figure, as he battled gallantly against a sea of blue all day. The sight of the corner forward surrounded by Dublin defenders was a recurring image in the match. Although he did manage to kick four points, Donegal were only able to score six in total, as they exited the 2011 All-Ireland series.
This year, Donegal are back in the All-Ireland semi-final, and they have reached this stage in a more attacking manner. The team has evolved over the last 12 months, and although, they still defend in numbers, McFadden has received more support this season.
It’s a tough role for the St Michael’s clubman. He is Donegal’s scorer-in-chief and also their outlet ball for almost every attack.
“I suppose, it’s kind of my role for the team to stay further up the field like, but I still have to bring a work-rate to the game, do my fair share as well, and I suppose it could change the next day, it could be a different man in that position.”
When Jim McGuinness took over as Donegal manager, McFadden’s career looked to be petering out. He had been dropped for the Ulster Championship opener against Down in 2010, and then was taken off against Armagh in Crossmaglen a couple of weeks later, on a dark day for Donegal GAA.
McGuinness had guided the Donegal under 21 team to an All-Ireland final with defensive tactics, but McFadden was still confident that he could fit into McGuinness’s blueprint.
“I think Jim said to us all, that if we all worked hard enough, worked hard on our game, and be prepared to put in the work in the training ground, then you’re going to get your opportunity like, so we’ve all just worked hard, and thankfully I got my chance to fit into it.”
McFadden has become an integral member of the Donegal panel and this was evident against Kerry as he picked up the man of the match award. The victory over the Kingdom was vindication for McGuinness and his Donegal team, taking down the GAA’s most successful county.
“I suppose the fact of getting over Kerry, serious All-Ireland contenders, it probably shows places we’re going, but at the same time, it’s still only a quarter-final win, and we have another tough game against Cork, and we’re going to have to up our game by a couple more percentages if we want to get to an All-Ireland final.”
McFadden kicked Donegal six points clear with only five minutes remaining against Kerry, but a late revival from the Kerry men almost saw them snatch a draw at the end. McFadden believes the team will learn lessons from the closing minutes of the quarter-final win.
“Maybe a little bit of complacency did set in, and Kerry showed how dangerous they are, the fact they got the goal, got themselves back into the game from a position where we should of seen the game out like. We’ll take a few learning points from that, and hopefully if we are in that situation against Cork, we’ll be able to close it out, and not put as much pressure on ourselves and on the supporters.”
McFadden was quick to praise the role the Donegal supporters played in dragging Donegal over the line against Kerry. Championship fever has really spread throughout the county, and they’ll go in their thousands again on Sunday to the GAA Headquarters.
“They’ve been very, very good now I must say, there’s some roar in Croke Park when you hear them after a score or after a defender overturns a ball. The roar is a great help when you do hear it coming from the stands.”
Expectation levels have grown in Donegal over the last year. Twelve months ago, Donegal were an unknown quantity, and the players and supporters enjoyed travelling into new territory. This year, followers of the green and gold expected to win Ulster and get at least one outing in Croke Park. However, McFadden does not feel any added pressure from the supporters.
“It’s kind of human nature I think. Last year everyone was delighted with the Ulster title success, but you know the kind of person the human is, they kind of get selfish. They want more, this year they were content and happy to win an Ulster, we want to achieve the ultimate goal of getting to an All-Ireland final and win the Sam Maguire.
“I think we all believe that we can do that like so, it’s just a matter of going out (and doing it) and there’s another obstacle in our way on Sunday in Cork,” he added.
Donegal’s recent success is in contrast to McFadden’s early inter-county career, which was littered with near misses and lost finals. He admits that there were times when he thought that his chance of getting his hands on some silverware had passed him by.
“I suppose at the start of the 21st century we were near enough Ulster titles, but there were two very good teams in Tyrone and Armagh at that stage who were just at a different level, and I suppose you have to be realistic, I probably thought the chance was slipping by. But thankfully Jim came in and he changed things about, every man is going in the right direction, and every man is pulling together, and it was great to get over the line last year, and it was on us again this year to do back-to back.”
McFadden more than anyone, could have foreseen the drastic change in fortune, due to the McGuinness revolution. He is a brother-in-law of the manager, and he also played alongside him in his early days for the county. McFadden says he had a fair idea that he would be successful at the helm of Donegal.
“I would have seen him involved with Glenties, and heard him talking about football and knew what he was capable of. He was involved with Glenties when they went the whole way to win the Donegal championship, and he did a great job then with the under 21s. I was aware of what he was capable of, it was great whenever he did get the job.
“He’s football from the minute he wakes up to the minute he goes to bed at night, he’s just football all the time,” he added.
Three years ago, Donegal played Cork in the quarter-finals of the Championship. Buoyed on by impressive victories over Derry and Galway, Donegal went into the game in a confident manner, but they were blitzed by the Rebels. Cork scored 1-27 in a scintillating display. Large, gaping holes appeared in the Donegal defence, and they were over-run by a fitter team. Those aspects of the game have since been rectified by the Donegal management. McFadden struggled to get into that game, and has filed it under the ‘one to forget’ category.
Donegal did manage to turn over their semi-final opponents in Ballybofey in the league, but the corner-forward believes that the league result, like the game in 2009, will have no bearing on the outcome on Sunday.
“The result is in the back of the mind from three years ago, it’s a total new game the next day, and the league game back in March or April is not going to mean anything like, we played Kerry in the league and they beat us by double scores, and we turned them over in the Championship, so we have to be aware this a total new game and we have to start on a new slate.”
Cork won the Sam Maguire in 2010, but they were unable to defend their title, as injuries to key players destroyed their season. They have been in excellent form this year, and the bookies have installed them as favourites to be crowned champions on the fourth Sunday in September. They defeated their neighbours Kerry, before dismantling Clare and Kildare with ease.
They have a glittering array of talent throughout their team, but it is their strength-in-depth in their forward line that really makes them stand out. Against Kildare, they were able to call upon Paddy Kelly and Daniel Goulding from the sidelines, a luxury which makes the rest of the country jealous of the options that Conor Counihan has at his disposal. However, when asked if Donegal could contain this fancied Cork side, McFadden was adamant that they have the ability to stop them.
“I would like to think so now alright, you have to be aware of the threat Cork bring to the game, they do have a serious forward line and a good bench, serious runners coming from the midfield and half-back as well. I suppose we are going to have to keep working hard for the next week, and hope that we can curtail their attacking threats.”
The Kerry game was physical and full of intensity, with strong hits given and received by both teams. McFadden expects this to be ramped up even further against the Leesiders, who are renowned for their strength and physical approach to the game.
“I think when you get to this level, All-Ireland quarter-finals and All-Ireland semi-finals like, the intensity in the hits are all there. Even if you look at the All-Ireland final between, Kerry and Dublin last year, the ferocity of the hits, and the tackles was serious, and I suppose it’s going to be much of the same now the next day.”
Many experts have suggested that the way to beat Donegal’s swarm defence, is to develop reliable long-distance point scorers. Cork are perhaps the best equipped team in the country to kick points from distance, and McFadden hinted that Donegal might make some tactical changes to curtail this threat.
“Well I suppose maybe there might be a few minor adjustments maybe, just to suit Cork like, because it’s one thing about them, they can kick scores from all angles, like they did against Dublin last year in the league final, in particular, they kicked points from way out in the wing, far out like, and as well as that they can run it in deep, create goal chances and easy tap over points, like so, there’s a lot of things to be aware of when you’re coming up against Cork.”
McFadden finished as the Ulster Championship’s top scorer with 2-17. He is the first Donegal man to be top scorer twice in the Ulster Championship. He added 1-6 to his season’s tally against Kerry, and is now only five points behind the Championship’s top scorer, Brian Farrell. He is second favourite to win Footballer of the Year and is almost a certainty to pick up his first All-Star. McFadden attributes much of his season’s form to the confidence McGuinness had installed in him and the team.
“I’d say probably the confidence is improving with every game I go out this year. I missed the start, all of the McKenna Cup and the first two or three league games with injury and it just took me a while to get my fitness up. With every game the confidence is improving now, I suppose that’s just natural too, when the team is going well and winning games like, I think everyone’s confidence is going to keep improving every day.”
With his confidence high and his form fantastic, Colm McFadden and Donegal will hope to have the last laugh on Sunday and book a place in the All-Ireland final.