Friday 21 October 2016

Dubs go back to basics to reclaim Sam

Reshaped defence and reducing goal count were key to victory

Dublin’s James McCarthy celebrates after the final whistle in Croke Park
Dublin’s James McCarthy celebrates after the final whistle in Croke Park
Dublin’s Philly McMahon and Rory O’Carroll tackle Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy during the All-Ireland SFC Final

Unless you have sauntered to the All-Ireland summit, every team of champions can look back on at least one watershed moment where their season teetered on the brink.

For Dublin, that moment came in the Mayo replay. While supporters of the green-and-red will forever lament Lee Keegan's under-cooked attempt to push them five clear, the key moment from a Dublin perspective came perhaps ten minutes later.

Mayo had just scored to restore a four-point cushion. Jim Gavin had, by now, unleashed his full Plan B from the bench, but the clock was ticking ...

And then, in the 54th minute, Kevin McManamon's crossfield pass located the advancing James McCarthy in an inviting pocket of space. The wing-back had time to steady and pick his spot; the ball sailed over the black spot.

Now, you may argue that Dublin would never have recovered but for Bernard Brogan's goal from the very next kickout ... but that goal may never have materialised if McCarthy hadn't just pointed.

At four down, Dublin were barely hanging on. It required someone to step up to the plate, to take responsibility, and the All Star wing-back assumed that mantle.

The rest is history.

It wasn't a classic championship and the cynics might even scoff that we'd a suitably error-strewn finale to put the September tin hat on it all.

That doesn't matter to Dublin. Nor should it. And besides, when it mattered most, they were infinitely the better team. Where the capital's last three All-Ireland triumphs were by the cumulative margin of three points, they equalled that in one fell swoop on Sunday and would not have been flattered by a ten-point cakewalk.


The reason for that performance chasm is partially down to Kerry's shocking malaise. Yet, just as a suddenly under-scrutiny Éamonn Fitzmaurice must absorb some harsh lessons now, Jim Gavin has emerged from a similar experience in 2014 as an even better manager.

For Dublin, year zero came against Donegal. It wasn't merely the defeat but the tactical unravelling that left everyone in Gavin's camp - players and management - with questions to answer.

On Sunday evening, McCarthy referenced the reaction to that defeat when he spoke of how people had called them "cowards and chokers and bottlers" ... we can't quite recall any such pejorative examples in the media but that doesn't necessarily matter.

What counts is that Dublin had a reason to disprove the doubters. They had motivation. Maybe it helped to foster an "us against the world" mentality, which can be a potent weapon if shrewdly utilised.

What was even more fundamental to this year's clean sweep of trophies (yes, even the O'Byrne Cup!) was the pragmatic response to that Donegal ambush.

To recapture Sam Maguire, Dublin would have to be more structured in defence, less gung-ho, far more clued-in to the dangers of leaving your full-back line exposed.

The stats put flesh on Dublin's defensive transformation. True, they 'only' conceded five goals during five SFC outings in 2014, but three of those came in their first (and last) genuine test: Donegal. Prior to that, they had leaked 11 goals even while blitzing their way to an Allianz League title.

This season delivered another league success - only this time the goals against column was reduced to just four in nine outings. Their summer record was almost as miserly: another four goals coughed up in seven matches. And even if two of those (against Fermanagh) bordered on farcical, the net effect is that Dublin conceded just eight goals in 16 NFL and SFC matches. That's one in every two games. That's All-Ireland material.


Switching Cian O'Sullivan to a quasi centre-back but primarily sweeper role was a key plank of Gavin's masterplan: O'Sullivan possessed the speed of thought, not just movement, to excel in his new brief. Of course, his relocation was facilitated by the spectacular emergence of Brian Fenton as a midfield mainstay.

Yet it was the collective resurgence of the defensive unit that helped propel Dublin over the finishing line. They always possessed the forward artillery capable of producing match-winning totals.

But this would be of little use if they continued to leave the back door ajar. They weren't foot perfect at the back - goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton had, by previously stellar standards, an unusually harum-scarum season, while indiscipline was a near-fatal issue in the drawn match with Mayo, when they coughed up 1-8 via punished fouls.

But, crucially, they heeded the lessons. Discipline improved in the replay and was far better again in the final.

It's no coincidence that two of the leading contenders for Footballer of the Year are Dublin defenders - Jack McCaffrey and Philly McMahon. Or little wonder that The Sunday Game picked four Dublin backs on their Team of the Year, Rory O'Carroll and O'Sullivan joining the above duo.

McCarthy didn't make the cut despite brilliant back-to-back performances at the business end.

Which brings us back to his point. Maybe that was the moment that turned their season.

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