Thursday 14 December 2017

Ciaran Whelan: Goals for Dublin to settle Sam

Absence of O'Sullivan would be huge blow to Blues chances

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicks the winning point from a free in injury time of the 2011 All-Ireland
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicks the winning point from a free in injury time of the 2011 All-Ireland

In a few years' time when people reflect on the iconic images of the last decade there is one that will stick out in the memory ... the shot of Stephen Cluxton after he had kicked the last score into Hill 16 to win the 2011 All-Ireland will be on the top of many Dubs' list.

A score that sent ripples of pleasure through the hearts of Dublin supporters but also sent cold shivers through the followers of the Kingdom. That 2011 final still sits uncomfortably with Kerry, have no doubt about it. After over 30 years of hurt at the hands of Kerry, Dublin's day of retribution had finally arrived in 2011.

This is a rivalry that has a history of respect with a bit of cute hoorism thrown in for good measure. But scratching under the surface of this rivalry, it is built on a raw intensity between two counties who have dominated the footballing landscape over the last century.

We can expect a fascinating tactical battle between Jim Gavin and éamonn Fitzmaurice to unfold on Sunday afternoon. All-Ireland finals take on a life of their own. So often the form players and key threats are nullified by opposition tactics. Unsung heroes can emerge from under the radar and duly influence the destiny of the Sam.

So what can we expect? Whilst both teams have a preference to play attacking football it would be folly to expect that this game will descend into a shootout. If it does, it is advantage Dublin.

There may be a distinct contrast in how both teams approach this game. Dublin will be relatively predictable in their approach and will play to their strengths. Kerry have more options in terms of their game-plan. They can vary their style of attack. They can vary their style of defence. We all know Fitzmaurice has had a good chance to dissect the Dublin game-plan over the last two games against Mayo.

He will have identified some key players for Dublin and will look to cut off their oxygen starting with the Dublin defence. If Kerry are to win this game, all six forwards will need to play a crucial role. The dogs on the street know that Kerry will push up man on man for Cluxton's kickouts.

With Cluxton averaging six or seven seconds on restarts, Kerry will need to play the percentages here. It is a task that is easier said that done.


If Kerry force Dublin to go long on six or seven kick-outs, they can consider it a success. However, I would also not rule out Cluxton occasionally going long down the flanks to Paul Flynn or Diarmuid Connolly which may unhinge the Kerry strategy.

For me, Fitzmaurice's biggest dilemma is balancing his defensive strategy across all sectors of the pitch.

Does he protect his defence who are vulnerable man-on-man in space or when teams run hard at them directly down the central channel? Or does he look to cut off the Dublin supply line by pressurising Dublin coming out of their defence.

There is no doubt that Philly McMahon and Jack McCaffrey will be targeted as key igniters for the Dublin attacking strategy.

Johnny Buckley, Stephen O'Brien and Donnchadh Walsh are all good tacklers who can physically impose themselves on the game but also can contribute on the scoreboard.

If Kerry are to press Cluxton's kickouts then I expect Kerry will use their half-forward line to then drop back and pack the midfield area thus tracking the Dublin runners from defence.

Last year Kerry were excellent in keeping tabs on the Donegal runners such as Frank McGlynn and Ryan McHugh coming from deep. Playing in this manner will allow them to slow the game down, protect their full-back line and it could also draw Dublin into positions where they could be exposed on the counter-attack.

When Gavin sat down to prepare his defence for Sunday, he will have needed to have few plans in place. Plan A if Donaghy plays. Plan B if Paul Geaney plays. Plan C if Donaghy and Tommy Walsh play.

The fitness of Cian O'Sullivan cannot be understated. O'Sullivan's leadership role in the Dublin defence has been hugely influential. His concentration levels and reading of the game ensure he always assumes the correct position to close down the options for opposing teams.

Unlike Mayo, if Donaghy or Walsh starts, Kerry will look to deliver good deep diagonal balls to the edge of the square with Colm Cooper pulling the strings in a creative role and O'Sullivan is hugely important in closing down that threat.

Paul Geaney is also dangerous under high ball but his inclusion will give more mobility to the Kerry inside forward line. An inside trio of Cooper, James O'Donoghue and Geaney will keep the Dublin full-back pinned back and will offer a very different threat.

Midfield dominance will be discussed in many quarters in the build-up to Sunday's game and Kerry will be given a strong advantage which, in my opinion, may be overstated and overhyped.

Anthony Maher and David Moran, in particular, are a formidable pairing to come against but certainly not insurmountable. Alan O'Connor gave Cork a lifeline on his own against Kerry in the drawn Munster Final.

The Kildare pairing of Paul Cribbin and Tommy Moolick were overhyped after their performance against an inept Cork side and their team collectively were totally overwhelmed by Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Colm Cavanagh and Mattie Donnelly also held their own in the All-Ireland semi-final and more importantly Tyrone took advantage when winning breaking ball from the Kerry kickout. Brian Fenton has been a revelation for Dublin this year and has commanded a regular starting place. His partnership with Denis Bastick who plays the holding role means that Fenton can express himself more as an all-round footballer.

If Bastick starts, he will be tasked with man-marking David Moran for the first 45 minutes and the reenergised Michael Darragh Macauley may explode off the bench when all around him are running low on fuel.

Whilst Cluxton's kickout strategy will dominate the talk in the build-up, Dublin must look to the other end of the pitch for an advantage. Brendan Kealy (inset, far left) must be forced to go long also by Dublin. At times Kealy can struggle for length on his kickouts and if Dublin commit bodies to win the breaking ball on the front foot then the Kerry defensive line will be out of position allowing Dublin to run at their defence.

If Dublin give their forward line a platform and create enough scoring chances, the accuracy of Paddy Andrews, Ciarán Kilkenny, Diarmuid Connolly and the in-form Bernard Brogan will do damage on the scoreboard.

With the levels of fitness required in the modern game added with the pace of the final, the substitutions and their team structure in the last 20 minutes is paramount for both teams. Both managers will have plans in place to deal with substitutions that we all know will happen in both forward lines.

Alan Brogan, Macauley/Bastick or Kevin McManamon will certainly feature for Dublin whilst Barry John Keane, Darran O'Sullivan. Tommy Walsh and possibly Paul Galvin will be called upon by Fitzmaurice.


Whilst they all may lose the plaudits of being part of the first 15, the aforementioned group could really decide the destiny of Sam in the closing 10 or 15 minutes.

This game will be won on tight margins. A moment of magic, a simple mistake and dare I say it, a black or red card could have a significant bearing on the game.

Goals win games and Dublin should be clinical if chances come their way. That could just be enough to see Stephen Cluxton climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand on Sunday evening.

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