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Monday 5 December 2016

Kevin Mac's final dream

Dub dynamo, on cusp of his first All-Ireland start, is 'torture' to mark

Kevin McManamon celebrates after scoring Dublin’s third goal during last year’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay against Mayo at Croke Park. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Kevin McManamon celebrates after scoring Dublin’s third goal during last year’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay against Mayo at Croke Park. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Kevin McManamon with his older brother Brendan at the recent Volkswagen All-Ireland Junior Sevens launch. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

If Brendan McManamon had his way, younger brother Kevin would have been a nailed-on Dublin starter long before this stellar summer.

But then, when you ask about his sibling's penchant for hitting the ground running as an impact sub, his answer touches upon the conundrum that has long faced Jim Gavin and - before that - Pat Gilroy.

"The style of football that he plays, you know, he gets the football and he's very direct," Brendan explains.

"Lads are getting a bit tired as matches are wearing on. He's just getting the ball and going at them. It's torture for defenders who are after chasing fellas around for 60, 70 minutes … then Kev comes on full of life, running at them."

But then big brother clarifies: "He's proven now that he can chip in with three or four points from play from the start. He seems to always get them at the right time, whenever Dublin need a bit of a lift."

Difference

And that's the key difference between Kevin McManamon, circa 2016, and the perennial super-sub of the preceding half-decade. He is lasting the pace - not merely in 70-minute terms, but in the context of an entire campaign.

Here's an intriguing - and, we suspect, overlooked - statistic pertaining to McManamon's seven-year career in Sky Blue, beginning in 2010.

In five of those seven campaigns, he has actually started Dublin's first SFC outing in Leinster. Pat Gilroy included the rookie on his first '15' against Wexford in 2010, Laois in 2011 and Louth in 2012. Jim Gavin selected him for last year's opening cakewalk against Longford and this year's day-one trek to face Laois in Nowlan Park.

Moreover, we'll never know if Gavin might have opted for McManamon against Westmeath in 2013 - he was ruled out with a hamstring injury that day. The following year, he was first sub in against Laois, scored two points and held his place for the next three rounds.

What all of this underlines is that Gilroy and Gavin have generally invested their June faith in the Jude's dynamo.

Reputation

Yet in none of those first six campaigns has McManamon started Dublin's final match: he was an unused sub against Cork in 2010, established his super-sub reputation with the goal that broke Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final, and also came off the bench against Mayo (2012 and '13), Donegal ('14) and Kerry (last year).

For whatever reason or reasons, he found himself playing to stereotype in August or September. Maybe it's because Gilroy and Gavin realised just how profound his impact could be when called upon to "torture" those tiring defenders in the last 20 or 25 minutes.

Or maybe, as the player himself alluded to last January, "the solution is down to my application. It's down to me playing well in training in August and September, which I haven't done over the years."

Nine months on, all changed, changed utterly ...

McManamon has started all five of Dublin's fixtures en route to Sunday's All-Ireland final against Mayo. This time round, the deeper he's gone into summer, the better he's performed.

If you collate their last three games - against Westmeath, Donegal and Kerry - he has been Dublin's standout player. Close to 'Man of the Match' in the first two, he then received the official 'Sunday Game' gong by dint of his superb second half in the semi-final. His 70th minute point, to edge his team ahead, was just one of several pivotal interventions in the home straight ... including, of course, that controversial 'hit' to halt Peter Crowley's gallop as Kerry went searching for a late equaliser.

McManamon was everywhere in the death throes of that epic. And yet, as Brendan McManamon points out: "I was getting texts through the match, people telling me 'Ah, Jesus, is Kevin all right? He looks tired.' He looks tired like that all the time. It's just the way ... like, Damian Duff used to look like that, head down, that's just the way he looks.

"I'd say he's in the top three or four fittest lads on the team. When they do these bleep tests he's never far off. He's still able to do it - 73rd minute he's up and down. It's great to see because I think he made three or four plays in those three or four minutes; turned out that was the turning of the game."

Brendan, of course, blazed a trail for his brother as a Dublin panellist in 2008 and '09. He, too, has been sprung from the bench in an All-Ireland quarter-final - albeit in the midst of a meltdown as Tyrone torpedoed Pillar Caffrey's reign by 12 points in '08.

Decline

"Yet we were 100 per cent sure we were going to win that match," he recalls. "Tyrone, we thought, were on the decline - but then they did what they did to us that day.

"What they're doing now, these young lads, this group of players, it's a different level altogether from what we were playing at."

Including his brother, who will turn 30 in December. By then, Brendan surmises, Kevin should have followed the hurling lead of Danny Sutcliffe and brought a first ever football All Star award to St Jude's.

And, while accepting the accusation of family bias, he reckons Kevin has a "great chance" of being named Footballer of the Year - if he has a good final and Dublin win, as Brendan believes they will, "a very tight game".

Back in January, McManamon revealed his personal ambition: to be in the big-match parade come September. And even though Gavin threw a recent spanner in the works by omitting him from his semi-final 'dummy team', it's hard to think of one Dublin player who has done more to earn a belated first All-Ireland start.

Brendan admits he would have struggled with the super-sub tag. "I don't know how he dealt with it," he says. "He never moaned about it or complained about it, just seemed to get on with it all the time.

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