Wednesday 26 October 2016

Dublin breach West's double decker

Parked bus finally moved by two goals in 60 seconds

12 July 2015; Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Delaney Cup after the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Westmeath v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
12 July 2015; Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Delaney Cup after the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Westmeath v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

THE build-up to this grimly fascinating Leinster senior football final was dominated by one recurring theme: by how many myriad points would the 1/500 Dubs demolish the rank outsiders from Westmeath?

A double-digit differential was taken as the basic starting point; to suggest single digits was to invite ridicule and to speculate on the ultimate ambush would have qualified you for instant committal.

So, instead, most pundits pondered (not long or too hard) on whether Westmeath might suffer hardship on a par with the wilting Lilies or, worse, the haplessly steamrolled Longford.

Would it be 19 points? Or 27? Or somewhere in between?

Now fast-forward to the closing stages of yesterday's first half at Croke Park. The clock reads 34 minutes and John Heslin has just capitalised on Paul Sharry's clever invitation to land Westmeath's fourth point.

They trail by just 0-7 to 0-4. Dublin have been shooting pressurised wides - seven at this juncture - and making twice as many mistakes, many but not all forced by the diligence of Westmeath's massed defensive resistance.

This is not all going to 'The Invincibles' script ...

An hour later, Joe McQuillan has called time and Dublin have, indeed, eased into double-digit terrain. The final count is 13 points - 2-13 to 0-6. If you were to apply traditional values on how to judge a GAA contest, you would call that a mismatch.

And in a way, it was.

But in another way ... well, let's just say that Westmeath pushed Dublin into some uncomfortable places while implementing a game-plan that was only a fortnight in the making.

For their first three outings, against Louth, Wexford and Meath, they set up in orthodox fashion and delivered massive tallies (3-14, 1-21 and 3-19) even as their defence leaked too heavily.

Tom Cribbin knew - instinctively, logically - that Westmeath couldn't tackle the Dublin behemoth by going man-for-man. Such tactical hara-kiri would surely result in carnage.

So his management team devised a system that essentially entailed a 1-12-1-1 formation: Darren Quinn in goals, 12 outfield bodies packing their own half of the field, then Heslin on the '40' and then Shane Dempsey as the sole inside raider. It was a lonely existence for Dempsey, and Heslin on the few occasions he joined his St Loman's clubmate.

Traditionalists will argue that going with such a nakedly defensive set-up was not just anathema to how these players want to play, but defeatist by its very nature.

And yet the reality is that at half-time, when trailing by 0-8 to 0-4, the Westmeath dressing-room could claim to themselves (whatever about the sceptics outside) that they still had a chance to defy all odds.

They had implemented instructions almost to a tee; the one big glaring asterisk was the six first half point attempts that fell short to Stephen Cluxton as, too often, the outnumbered shooter chanced his arm from a low-percentage position.


Over in the Dublin camp, notwithstanding their double-scores lead, Jim Gavin can't have been too happy at the midpoint. Five minutes after the restart, following that double-whammy goal blast from Bernard Brogan and Jack McCaffrey, the Dublin boss could at least relax, safe in the knowledge that there would be no way back for the challengers.

Thus, with McCaffrey and Cian O'Sullivan to the fore in a dominant half-back line and with Diarmuid Connolly sprinkling his stardust from half-forward, ably supported by Ciarán Kilkenny, Dublin eased to victory.

The two Dublin goals were separated by less than 60 seconds, both stemming from Quinn kickouts that were lost, immediately putting his defence on the back foot.

Paul Flynn's assist from the end-line teed up Brogan (loitering marginally outside the square when the pass was made) to fist home the first.

As the entire press box digested TV replays, the next short kickout went calamitously wrong and there was McCaffrey popping up to rifle home the second.

Game over. And still Westmeath stuck to the plan ...

In summary, this was one of Dublin's least fluent championship displays under Gavin (check out those 16 wides) ... but it could actually be a godsend.

Leinster has been easy, far too easy for them.

Yes, they surmounted a sterner challenge from Meath in 2013 but they have never faced a blanket defence like this within their own province. This was more akin to Jim McGuinness against Pat Gilroy in 2011: then, curiously, Donegal were also limited to a 'paltry' six points but they were already well schooled in the ways of blanket defence and curtailed Dublin to eight points.


Yesterday was far less fraught from a Dublin perspective - the result was never seriously in doubt - but facing this puzzle in July could prove hugely instructive to All-Ireland favourites who will be in everyone's line of fire come August and maybe September.

On the flip side, Donegal and Kerry and a few more will have looked on with interest and spied signs of vulnerability. Moreover, three of Dublin's six starting forwards (Dean Rock, Kevin McManamon and the surprisingly scattergun Flynn) will have a point to prove on the training pitch over the next three weeks.

No bad place to be.


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