herald

Wednesday 7 December 2016

We're ready for an aerial duel: Philly

Dublin defender Philly McMahon. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile
Dublin defender Philly McMahon. Picture: Stephen McCarthy / Sportsfile

Whatever tactical ruse Donegal bring to Croke Park tomorrow night, designed to catch Dublin unaware, positioning Michael Murphy at full-forward for a sustained period of time won't be it.

"If people say 'let's challenge Dublin in their full-back line, let's hit a load of high balls in', do they think we are not going to work on that, like?" asks Philly McMahon, somewhat incredulously.

His tone would suggest strongly that they have.

"I think the good thing is that people talk up our full-back line (as being potentially vulnerable) and that influences the team we are playing to try things that we know we should be practising," points out the Dublin defender.

And not unreasonably either.

Still, Rory O'Carroll-less for the first time in five years and without a stylistically similar alternative, it is inevitable that this most basic function of Dublin's defence has come under scrutiny.

That Donegal and Kerry resisted the option of aligning Murphy and Kieran Donaghy to full-forward for any significant stint across the four League matches they played against Dublin only adds to the suspicion that Rory Gallagher and Éamonn Fitzmaurice were keeping the noughts and crosses summer tactics board hidden from public view.

Plus, Laois and Westmeath had at least some joy from such an approach already this summer.

"I suppose (Donie) Kingston got one high ball in, in the first half," McMahon concedes, "that was it".

"He got a free from it. Then the second half he got two or three balls obviously. But Westmeath, they got one ball in.

"It's great that people are talking this area up in the game and these tactics.

Tactic

"We work on all aspects of it, unless there is some unknown tactic that some team is going to come up with …which is what Donegal done in 2014."

Topically enough.

The shorthand for that day was that Donegal exposed Dublin's tactically one-dimensional approach, spectacularly more successful than it had been previously.

Their ability to manipulate the percentages through tactical innovation and their embrace of the more clandestine side of preparations make Donegal very dangerous opponents, regardless of the lessons Dublin learned in that All-Ireland semi-final.

"I think sport in general is about change isn't it?

"You either get exposed to it, or it is imposed on you," McMahon muses, "so that's how we need to be able to adapt.

"And we are trying to be smarter footballers every training session, so if someone throws something different at us we can deal with that."

For all that, McMahon accepts that "It's very hard to tell how well you are preparing in training until you go out and play that game.

"And say 'right we are after beating them, our performance was really good, so we know our preparation was really good the week before'.

"It's very hard to tell. All we can judge and measure is are we getting better each session? Are we improving as individuals and collectively.

"That's all we can look at."

Should Dublin fail tomorrow night, they'll play that old number on repeat about the defending All-Ireland champions not knowing whether they had the hunger to win again until faced with a team possessing winning credentials.

The paucity of competition Dublin face pre-August doesn't alter the perception that whatever faults this team possess, they've yet to be uncovered or riotously exploited.

"I find the Leinster Championship a harder challenge mentally," McMahon counters, "because you are surrounded by people constantly telling you you are playing weaker teams.

"So that is a big challenge. It's not that we treat the teams that we play in Leinster different to the teams that we play outside of Leinster, it's just your environment is a little bit different.

"You are constantly talking to people who are talking down teams so that changes a little bit."

For all that, McMahon says Dublin have yet to experience anything particularly new this year from any opposition in League or Championship.

"We haven't come up against anything that's different to teams either going man on man against us or the hybrid defence so those are the two kind of things most teams are doing.

"Some teams are doing a little bit of both. Apart from that I haven't seen anything tactically different."

McMahon's season was just three minutes old when he feared he might have to review his own playing style.

Suspended for Dublin's League opener against Kerry, McMahon was black carded by Pádraig Hughes for a marginally late challenge on Aidan O'Shea on an awful night for football in Castlebar in February.

"I was thinking: 'is this going to be a year of black cards on me, or is it going to be tough on me?'

"So I went off and started working on my tackling and discipline in the tackling and I suppose, it stood to me. Because of that, you kind of try to improve your tackling a little bit more in training and I suppose that's one area that I worked on.

"I haven't had a black card and very few yellow cards that I remember - I don't know if I've got a yellow card."

"You train all week ," McMahon recalls, "and your family members are travelling down to Mayo, two or three hours up on the bus and then in three minutes, you are sitting on the bench staring at a game.

"And you are saying to yourself: 'I'm after letting the lads down here'.

"But when you look back on the tackle, there was no black card there.

"Would it have been a yellow card (if there was no black card). Who knows?

Sloppy

"It was unfortunate," the Ballymun defender reckons. "There was actually two of us that tackled but I was the one who got the black card."

"As Gaelic footballers we go to work every day and we train as hard as professional athletes in this country.

"And then you go out and you do a sloppy tackle, which is possible for everybody, no matter who you are; the really good defenders or the sloppy defenders.

"And that's it, done.

"Everything you've prepared for that whole week is gone," McMahon concludes.

"That's the hard part of it, I think."

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