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Sunday 19 May 2019

Dub's summer in hands of their defence

Rock solid back seven was the cornerstone of team's rise under Gilroy and Kenny

Dublin players react after a penalty was awarded against them against Kilkenny during last Saturday’s Leinster SHC Round 1 match at Nowlan Park. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin players react after a penalty was awarded against them against Kilkenny during last Saturday’s Leinster SHC Round 1 match at Nowlan Park. Pic: Sportsfile

Pat Gilroy had only been manager of the Dublin hurlers for five weeks in 2017 when he sat in the lobby of the Boston Harbour Hotel and was asked about the focus of his initial work with a team that had, over the past four years, slipped from relevance as one of the game's competitive forces.

"The concession of goals is a big thing, probably the biggest," he replied without a second's hesitation.

In Dublin's exit from the Leinster SHC that summer, they conceded two to a Galway team that remarkably, wouldn't hit another goal for the remainder of their All-Ireland winning campaign.

Then, on the day Ger Cunningham's reign ended on a miserable Sunday evening in Thurles, Tipperary casually plundered six.

"I find in that Tipperary game there was a lot of good things earlier on from a Dublin perspective," Gilroy noted.

"But then just little things started to turn against them and goals went in."

Which partly explains some of what transpired in Gilroy's sole League campaign, a series of dull performances en route to finishing fourth of six teams in Division 1B.

For all their struggles and clear lack of conditioning last spring, Dublin conceded just four goals in their five 1B matches, the second fewest of any team in the top two divisions.

rifled

Bill O'Carroll, whose brother Rory was Gilroy's full-back with the footballers, was plonked on the edge of the square and in tandem with Alan Nolan, a large part of their job was to prevent anyone venturing through on goal from safely completing their journey.

His midfielders and half forwards dropped noticeably deep, in some cases counter-productively so.

Against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds on a soaked February Saturday evening, Dublin frequently had 13 men behind the ball, a tightly-packed semi-circle inside their own '65.

It meant that Limerick's only goal chances was Aaron Gillane's penalty, rifled past Alan Nolan after the Dublin 'keeper had fouled Seámus Flanagan after he galloped through the cover.

Yet for most of the second half, Limerick used their free defenders to casually work the ball up to the exclusion zone outside the Dublin defence.

Once the gaps were closed by blue shirts, they simply fed the ball back to a free players, who slotted over from distance.

As a means of eradicating goal chances, it worked perfectly. By way of achieving results, it was fatally flawed.

Dublin's concession of 102 points was the second highest of any team across the divisions.

Only Gilroy and his management team knew their intentions but as summer neared and the heavy slog of winter began to ease, his team went through the Leinster SHC campaign conceding just one goal, the controversial Liam Blanchfield strike in their provincial opener that put Dublin on their back foot.

Wexford, who had the same Leinster programme as Dublin, had the second lowest number of goals conceded with five.

From shipping nine goals in three games in the 2018 Championship, Gilroy had reduced that statistic to one from four in the space of 12 months.

And being the eternal pragmatist, Mattie Kenny didn't try and fix what wasn't broken when he took over from Gilroy.

Dublin shipped four goals in this year's Division 1B - all of which came on the same day when Waterford capitalised on three individual mistakes to score four goals in Parnell Park.

In the League quarter-final, Tipperary drew a blank in Thurles, with Eoghan O'Donnell outstanding.

And Limerick scored just one in the League semi-final - Gillane again - after which Kenny's system came in for some scrutiny, inaccurate as Kenny saw it.

"I felt that some people that analysed the game got it wrong," he stated.

"They said Dublin played with a sweeper, which we didn't. We tried to keep our half-back line in place, but Limerick pulled their full-forward way out to midfield and beyond.

"So, if they sat in that position, that doesn't make them sweepers ... they're holding their positions."

In two strikes last Saturday in Nowlan Park, TJ Reid doubled Dublin's concession statistic from last summer.

With them, a victory that most accepted would have been 'a bonus' slipped from Dublin's grasp and their meeting with Wexford in Parnell Park immediately attained critical status.

Davy Fitzgerald was in Nowlan Park last Saturday to run the rule over his team's opponents but he is unlikely to have discovered anything new about Dublin on the night.

The case for Dublin's defence over the past year is substantial. Unless they're at their meanest on Sunday, Dublin's summer could be tangling by a thread.

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