Denis Bastick: 'It really strikes it home how lucky you are when you do get a start for Dublin'
Bastick can still soar with the best in altered midfield landscape
DENIS BASTICK was a late bloomer on the inter-county stage, but the game has still evolved in tactical leaps and strategic bounds since he first broke onto the Dublin squad in 2006.
Midfield ain't what it used to be.
"Initially, when I started off first," he recalls, "it was a matter of putting the ball down and kicking it out as far as possible.
"You had the likes of Dermot Earley, Ciarán Whelan, Darragh Ó Sé and these guys who were built to go out there and catch the ball. There wasn't much of a strategy to it: you beat your man to the ball or you didn't.
"Slowly it started changing to what it is now. You see the two 'keepers rushing to the ball, rushing to the tee, trying to get it out in a few seconds. That happens over time and, as a player, you have to grow with it.
"Every match you play, even for the club, people are trying different kickouts. It has kind of happened naturally until it has got to where we are today. It's been a natural process. But if you look at it from start to finish, there's a huge difference."
This was underlined by the 100mph tempo of both Mayo semi-finals.
"There's no switching off," Bastick explains. "Your body is probably well able for the quick kickouts but mentally you just need to be sharp and on top of your game. What's happening is, you switch off for a second or you make a long run or a sprint, and all of a sudden your man gets a quick kickout. It's a concentration thing."
And yet, in some respects, there remains something of the old-school midfielder in Bastick and that could make him hugely important, whether he starts Sunday's All-Ireland final against Kerry or is summoned from the Hogan Stand in the midst of battle.
Because few midfield duos are so well equipped to devour kickout possession than Kerry's David Moran and Anthony Maher. And the strong suspicion lurks that Kerry will not alone try and utilise their aerial strength off Brendan Kealy's kickouts, but that they'll apply a high court press on Stephen Cluxton's restarts, negating his preferred option of going quick and short to a defensive colleague.
But if Cluxton is forced to kick long, there is not alone a high premium on accuracy (he remains the best, despite some recent wobbles) but an onus on Dublin's restart runners and jumpers.
Enter Bastick: he is not just physically built for the bump and grind but, at 34, he can still 'hang' with the best - arguably Dublin's most accomplished at claiming clean aerial possession.
It's not a completely dying art, as the Templeogue Synge Street man underlined with his second half cameo in the drawn semi-final against Mayo - until a controversial black card ended his day.
"I had fallen down, I had my back to the ball, I was on the ground and my leg was out. I did trip him (Barry Moran), but in no way was it deliberate. I couldn't see him," he stresses. "I ended up on the sideline which was disappointing because, to be honest, maybe a few more minutes we would have lost that game."
Dublin survived, and Bastick started the replay. This time, though, it was the turn of his replacement - Michael Darragh Macauley reincarnated as his 2013 Footballer of the Year self - to exert a dynamic influence in the home straight.
Hence the uncertainty over Dublin's All-Ireland midfield. The presumption is that rookie Brian Fenton will retain his berth, as he has done all summer long; then it's a question of when, as Jim Gavin sees it, the team can get the most from Bastick and Macauley.
"It's been on and off throughout the championship games, it's been really tough but it's been fantastic," the elder candidate enthuses.
"Look at the impact Michael Darragh had the last day. I was sub for the first day and got my chance to come on, so that's driving the team on - and it really strikes it home how lucky you are when you do get a start and get to play for Dublin."
To be so pivotal to the midfield mix is a welcome change from the injury-plagued year he endured in 2014. It's a different world, too, from those initial years under Paul Caffrey when he flitted on and off the panel (he was there for the Battle of Omagh in 2006, has the two yellow cards to prove it) without ever making the championship cut.
Likewise, it's a pretty dramatic shift from his 'proper' debut season in 2009 when Pat Gilroy became the second Dublin manager in two seasons to try and fill that troublesome full-back void (post-Paddy Christie, pre-Rory O'Carroll) with a relocated midfielder.
It was all proceeding serenely until Dublin ran into a 'crisis-hit' Kerry in the quarter-finals. "Definitely not" one of his most fun days in a blue jersey.
"A disaster for Dublin as a whole," is how he remembers that 17-point meltdown, "but we learned a lot and picked ourselves up, and got back to a semi-final that we probably should have beaten Cork in the following year, then reassessed ourselves again and (in 2011) we got to the final."
And ambushed Kerry in the closing minutes. Revenge. Then the green-and-gold got another dose of it in 2013. Bastick accepts the boot is now on the other foot and that the old enemy will be gunning for revenge. The flip side is that Kerry are also the holders, chasing two in-a-row, "so there's a lot of pressure maybe on them".
Truth is, this could be decided by the smallest of margins. Even down to one kickout - remember how 2013 all hinged on that Cluxton restart, won by an outnumbered Macauley as a prelude to Kevin McManamon's goal.
"Maybe this time it's more in their heads than it is in ours, the defeats," Bastick speculates. "We've had a good year to date, it's been a bit hit-and-miss in terms of form and consistency; we're trying to get that performance right so we can bring that into the final.
"And if it's good enough, it's good enough."