Friday 21 October 2016

Gavin is king in a team of Dub leaders

Unbeaten in 26, they look to have Kerry's number ... but Blues boss expects just a bounce of the ball in it

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Sportsfile

Jim Gavin makes it clear. He wants his players to lead on the field. He gives them the freedom to make game-plan adjustments in real time.

And yet, for all that, there is something even more crystal clear. He doesn't say it but he doesn't have to: Jim Gavin is boss. You play by his rules or you don't play.

And the good news for Dublin is that the best players - well, bar a couple of high-profile examples who went foreign this season - all want a part of what promises to be the most successful Sky Blue collective in Gaelic football history.

Three All-Irelands in five seasons could become four out of six next month. Gavin's own strike rate reads ten out of 11 major honours: two from three Sam Maguires, four leagues and four Leinsters on the spin.

His team is unbeaten, in league or championship, for almost 18 months, a 26-match run embracing 24 victories and two draws. The last time they lost? March 1, 2015, in Killarney. Against a Kerry side now blocking their path to another All-Ireland final.

That distant loss isn't the reason Gavin is now preaching a cautious message ahead of Sunday's semi-final. This is what he does before facing every rival, heavyweight or minnow.

Thus, he isn't shouting from the rooftops that Dublin have avenged that result with three consecutive Croke Park victories: last year's All-Ireland, a Division 1 opener and then the Allianz League final. Even if the three-point margin last September suggested otherwise, all three were comprehensive in nature.

With Dublin chasing a fourth straight SFC win over their erstwhile nemesis, no wonder people say the psychological balance between the two has completely shifted. Quelle surprise, Gavin isn't one of them.

"They know, and we know, there's literally a bounce of the ball between us. Some of the scorelines might reflect otherwise, but that's the harsh reality of it," he insists, speaking at an Aer Lingus-sponsored 'Train with the Dubs' training session.


"I mean, if you look at the strength in depth in their squad now … from a Kerry perspective they've grown this year. There's multiple All-Irelands in that squad. We're nowhere near that in this Dublin football team."

Maybe so, in the case of Messrs Cooper, O'Mahony, Ó Sé, Donaghy and a few more ... but most of this Dublin squad can boast two or three Celtic Crosses whereas two-thirds of the Kerry team that started against Clare have only one.

"I can go on and on about the quality of this Kerry side, so this is going to be a really, really tough game," he reiterates. "This one will go down to the wire."

Gavin knows they pose a "different challenge" to Donegal. "They keep a lot more players up," he says. "We've seen from recent times, in 2013, what can happen if you give them the space ... they're goin g to hurt Dublin.

"They've shown various game-plans during their National League campaign. We met them in the final. Once they got their man sent off, I think it was the 48th minute, there was only two points in that game (Dublin eventually won by 11).

"They are well able to push up high, they are well able to get their forward players behind the ball and set up a defensive line across the middle. They're unpredictable in that sense. What Kerry can bring, because they have such talented and experienced players, you can't plan for every eventuality. Therefore we've based most of our preparation on our game-plan."

Question: would that plan entail keeping Ciarán Kilkenny in the half-back role he seamlessly filled against Westmeath (second half) and Donegal? The opposition's defensive set-up meant Kilkenny effectively played as a GAA-style quarter-back - hence the incredible stat of 52 possession in the quarter-final.

James McCarthy has been declared fit and the presumption is he will start this Sunday. That may mean a return to half-forward haunts for Kilkenny, although his manager disputes the theory that he couldn't fill a man-marking brief. "I think he's well able to play there - be it an orthodox 15-on-15 or teams that play like Donegal," Gavin declares. "He's very flexible ... he's got great game intelligence so he knows how to play the various roles."

Kilkenny is just one of many who have assumed on-field command. "In different games there's different players stepping up in that leadership role. But that's very much part of their culture: we expect them all to be leaders," he explains.

"On any given day you're not going to get a perfect performance, that's just unachievable, but we're just striving the whole time for a high level of excellence from all of them."

One last issue coming out of the quarter-final: whereas Gavin complained, afterwards, about players receiving "special attention", the Sunday Game highlights showed that Donegal were actually attacking when Connolly and Ryan McHugh came together, resulting in a brace of yellows, the first of two for Connolly.

Gavin isn't inclined to revisit a "split decision" that a referee must make. "I'm not going to be critical of the referee - he makes a call on what he sees, he doesn't have the benefit of hindsight like we do in this forum, or post-game replays that people in studios might have," he says.

"He sees it as rough play and gives a yellow card, so he (Connolly) just accepts it, we accept it and we move on. We can't change the decision in real-time and I'm not going to comment on it post-game."


But as for the general claim that Connolly is subject to provocation, Gavin says: "Diarmuid is well able to look after himself. I was just stating the facts that obviously a manager (Tom Cribbin) has said it, and a player (Lee Keegan) has said it, that they went after him - so that was a statement of fact more than anything else.

"The point I was trying to make is we just want to see skilful players play football, and be allowed play within the rules of the gme. That's all we want to see."

That - and just one more win over Kerry.

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