Wednesday 21 November 2018

Another Dublin D-Day

Blues to find an escape to victory in second Tale of the Unexpected

Dublin’s Denis Bastick fields a kickout ahead of team-mate Philly McMahon and Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea
Dublin’s Denis Bastick fields a kickout ahead of team-mate Philly McMahon and Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea

We're pretty sure Donald Rumsfeld has never been mentioned in an All-Ireland semi-final preview, but there's a first time for everything so here goes ...

Back in 2002, the former US secretary of defence was answering some awkward questions about that problematic search for Iranian weapons of mass destruction (no jokes about last Sunday, please) when he made the following famous remark.

This one requires 100pc concentration, so focus please: "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know," Rumsfeld began. "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

"But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

Confused? You should be. Does any of this remind you how you felt leaving Croke Park last Sunday? Quite possibly.


It was a strange, disjointed, fractious affair, underpinned by caution (on both sides, Mayo especially) and blighted by bad behaviour all round.

You've read enough of the latter so we'll leave well enough alone.

Beforehand, the "known knowns" included that Dublin and Mayo were two of the top three teams in the country. What we didn't know is that their collision would include so little of the flowing, dynamic football of which both are capable.

The "known unknowns" centred on how each team would set up to counter the other's attacking arsenal: there would be sweepers, or some version of same. As it transpired, Cian O'Sullivan and Colm Boyle filled these roles for the most part, but it's fair to surmise that Dublin's defensive system proved more effective for a majority of the game.

As for the "unknown unknowns"? Well, we'll start with David Drake - did anyone in Mayo, outside the camp and maybe, just maybe, his own family, know that curve ball was coming?

We're tempted to include Stephen Cluxton's second half performance meltdown as another "unknown unknown", given we have never seen the Dublin captain/keeper/playmaker suffer like that before, although there were hints of his looming trauma late on against Fermanagh.

That Fermanagh quarter-final was equally notable for a late bout of collective panic, not that it mattered to the outcome.

Yet, when the same pressure points were pushed by Mayo in that crazy finale six days ago, it happened again, even more spectacularly.

Dublin collapsed. No other word for it. This used to be a familiar trait in those 'nearly years' of the noughties - has it come back to haunt Jim Gavin's men?


Perhaps it's too early for definitive judgements. With two midfielders banished on foot of dubious black cards, and Mayo belatedly applying a full court press on Cluxton's kickout, Dublin were forced to go long and were running out of big men who might win it.

This evening you might see more of Denis Bastick, for longer: he is Dublin's most reliable winner of primary 50-50 ball. Either way, Gavin will have to construct a middle-eight plan to at least limit Mayo's ball-winning prowess in this area, presupposing that the Connacht champions don't allow Cluxton the short option that he invariably prefers. That was one of the big talking points last weekend: why didn't Mayo press up on Cluxton's restarts from the get-go?

Evidently, they were worried about Dublin's ability to hit them at pace on the back of accurately delivered medium-to-long kickouts; that if Dublin gained possession on the front foot, it would enable the likes of Jack McCaffrey, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly to punch serious holes in their defence.

So Mayo adopted an ultra-cautious approach from the start, but it met with very mixed results. The sweeper system (more specifically Boyle) clearly didn't do its job in the prevention of goal chances, such as Flynn's catch and run leading to that early penalty. They trailed by five points (1-3 to 0-1) before their defence started to get to grips with Dublin, even if Ciarán Kilkenny remained a thorn in their side until half-time.

Yet it was at the other end that Mayo suffered most alarmingly. The lack of a discernible half-forward link to Aidan O'Shea meant the Breaffy powerhouse was feeding off high, hopeful and often poorly-directed first half scraps. The consistent absence of an inside partner, ready to pounce on the breaks, meant O'Shea was far too isolated and usually outnumbered.

Then, staring oblivion, Mayo threw off the shackles and the rest is history.

That was last Sunday. Today can and may well be an entirely different story. The outcome itself remains as elusive as Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns" ... we could have further stalemate and extra-time, it could be a one-point game on either side, or one of them might soar into the distance.

What do we know, or think we know?

(1) Even though their bench is no longer top-heavy with prolific Plan Bs, Dublin have a greater array of natural scoring forwards. If the game becomes a shootout (unlikely) and possession is evenly shared, they should press on to victory.

(2) Such an outcome would be less likely in the absence of Diarmuid Connolly. That helps to explain the lengths to which Dublin have appealed, all the way to the DRA, whose deliberations remain a mystery as we write. Clearly, leaving aside Dublin's sense of grievance over the singling out of Connolly, part of Gavin must feel that Dublin might not win this without him.

But could it all prove a deadly distraction? Steady on, we're veering back into Rumsfeld territory!

What we do believe is that Mayo need to be more aggressive - in their ambition, not tackling - if they are to build on the momentum surge of last weekend's grandstand finish. Do that, play Cillian O'Connor closer to O'Shea, tidy up their scattergun delivery, but also run at Dublin more often, and they can finish off the job.

Yet we also suspect that Dublin will have learned a multitude; that Cluxton will be better; that they will have worked assiduously on cutting down the foul count in O'Connor Country ... and if they tick enough of these boxes, they might belatedly complete a job so carelessly left unfinished.

But do we really know? Heck, no!

ODDS: Dublin 10/11, Draw 15/2, Mayo

13/10 VERDICT: Dublin

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