Monday 11 December 2017

Blues need a clue when rivals park the bus ...

SPEAKING after Dublin's escape-to-parity against Tyrone, Jim Gavin sounded enthused by the prospect of visiting Elverys MacHale Park next Saturday night.

"We always get a fantastic welcome there - a good pitch, a great stadium and, Mayo being a traditional team, we hopefully will get a good game of football, there's no doubt about that," he ventured.

A good game of football - and maybe with a glut of goals thrown in as a Paddy's weekend bonus - wouldn't that be a novel idea?

It's clear that if Gavin had his way, most games of Gaelic football would be played under the thrilling terms of engagement employed by his Sky Blue swashbucklers and the gung-ho Mayo of recent vintage.

But they aren't all played that way and, if this year's Allianz League is anything to go by, less and less of them are.

Notwithstanding the goals galore mayhem that was Cork/Kerry on Sunday, football has taken an undeniably negative turn this spring.


This wasn't meant to happen in the black card era, a paradigm rule shift that was supposed to usher in a brave new world of glorious non-cynicism and all-out attack. Well, so the Utopians predicted.

Back in the real world, managers and teams will do what they must to survive. The bottom line is always the top line - ie, the scoreline. Tactical trends are adopted by one and then aped by many.

We're not sure at what point it became "fashionable" to go all-out defensive again. Was it Donegal's strategic master-class against Dublin in last year's All-Ireland semi-final? Then again, this ambush came a day after Kerry had outgunned Mayo in a remarkable replay goalfest at the Gaelic Grounds.

Maybe the key tipping point was that happened next - Eamonn Fitzmaurice's realisation that Kerry couldn't beat Donegal playing the same way, hence his hold-the-line defensive orientation for the final.

As spectacles go, it was a chronic All-Ireland. But, as Gavin himself mentioned on Saturday night: "Whether it's pretty on the eye ... I suppose the All-Ireland champions don't really mind."

For the record, he wasn't speaking about Kerry and was actually talking in the context of Tyrone's ultra-defensive set-up against Dublin that night. Moreover, it should be stressed that Dublin management, players or fans didn't particularly mind when they won a torrid All-Ireland final against Mayo in 2013, finishing the game with all their subs used, with two banjaxed players on the pitch and with a late glut of cynical fouls.

Still, a far more prevalent theme of Dublin/Mayo meetings during the James Horan era was one of thrill-a-minute entertainment.

Try this for a roller coaster roll call: 2011 NFL, Dublin 4-15 Mayo 3-13; 2012 NFL, Mayo 0-20 Dublin 0-8; 2012 SFC semi-final, Mayo 0-19 Dublin 0-16; 2013 NFL, Dublin 2-14 Mayo 0-16 and Dublin 2-16 Mayo 0-16 (semi-final); 2013 SFC final, Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-14; 2014 NFL, Dublin 3-14 Mayo 2-17.

Whether Horan was facing Pat Gilroy or Gavin, you were almost always guaranteed a full-blooded frenzy. The one exception was Dublin's last visit to Castlebar for a refixed league game three years ago, when Mayo could have won by even more than 12 points, such was their fluency coupled with Dublin's abject resistance and poor discipline, resulting in two dismissals.

The memory of that no-show is one reason why members of the Diehard Dub Army will travel west with trepidation next weekend, to face a Mayo team now under the joint-management of Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes.


Another reason is their team's recent form graph: trying to break down a massed defence, such as Tyrone's, is never easy, true. It certainly requires far more speed of movement, passing and thought than that displayed by a strangely ponderous amd unimaginative Dublin three nights ago.

When everyone is fit and available, they still may qualify as the team to beat this summer. But their legendary strength in depth has looked far less obvious against Kerry or Tyrone over the past two weekends ... and if they were to maintain that performance level against table-topping Mayo, then another beating surely beckons.

And then we definitely will be talking about relegation blues, not unstoppable Sky Blue juggernauts.

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