Saturday 19 January 2019

'Evolve or die' is the key to Gavin's success

Dublin mauled Monaghan in 2014 - but look how their side has been transformed since

Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan in possession under pressure from Monaghan’s Darren Hughes in the 2014 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan in possession under pressure from Monaghan’s Darren Hughes in the 2014 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final. Pic: Sportsfile

Three years ago, after a nip-and-tuck start, Dublin hit Monaghan for a two-goal double-whammy and proceeded to win by 17 points.

This Saturday in Croke Park will be their first SFC collision since then. An All-Ireland quarter-final rematch will be portrayed in some quarters as Groundhog Day in the making.

As was the case in 2014, the Dubs are holders, fancied by the bookies to retain their crown, and emerging from another relatively serene cruise through the Leinster football lagoon.

You'll also find the same two managers - Jim Gavin and Malachy O'Rourke, both deep into their fifth seasons. Given all the similarities, then, is it a case of the same old Sky Blue story?


Anything but. Just check out the Dublin team that steamrolled the Farney in 2014 and measure it against this year's Leinster final line-up against Kildare ... you'll find just five players who started both games.

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. Pic: Sportsfile
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. Pic: Sportsfile

Our surviving quintet are Stephen Cluxton in goals, Mick Fitzsimons and Philly McMahon in the full-back line, James McCarthy and Cian O'Sullivan (and even their respective roles have altered).

True, there are mitigating circumstances: Diarmuid Connolly's suspension; the recent injury woes of Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh Macauley and Jonnny Cooper; the torn cruciate that sidelined Ciarán Kilkenny in 2014.

Yet it still qualifies as a pretty significant turnover and goes to underline a feature of Gavin's ultra-successful reign: his team is constantly evolving.

Already he is the longest-serving Dublin football manager since Kevin Heffernan's second coming, which ended in the mid-1980s. And he has committed to a further two-year extension up to the end of 2019. As Dublin chairman Seán Shanley noted this week: "He could do a Brian Cody on it if he wanted to."

But if the boss is going nowhere, you can't say his team is standing still. Four of his quarter-final subs in 2014 - Jack McCaffrey, Dean Rock, Paddy Andrews and Paul Mannion - started against Kildare. Others such as Brian Fenton, John Small, Eric Lowndes, Niall Scully and Con O'Callaghan have established their credentials in the interim.

"You're talking firstly about the longevity of managers, and then the longevity of players," says Joe Kernan, who knows all about the subject having spent six successful years in the Armagh hotseat. "Success brings its own problems but (with) no success, it's normally the manager who goes.

"But with success, normally the players are changed more often because you have to keep freshening it up, to keep it sharp."

Kernan goes on: "Some counties wouldn't be as lucky as Dublin, to have the quality or the amount of players that they keep introducing.

"Dublin's success stems from a lot of good U21 teams. But the fact that they are continuing to be successful means that more players want to play, more people are fighting for places, than if you were going through season after season, knocking on the door but not really getting there.

"You look at Monaghan. People would have said they're fighting above their weight all the time but, you know, only they got an U21 team a couple of years ago ... that brought in a few fresh faces but the one thing people in Monaghan would say is that there's not enough fresh faces to keep it at a real high level."

A 2014 recap bears that out: nine of that Monaghan team started against Down last Saturday, when O'Rourke's younger cavalry off the bench (Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron) provided crucial scoring momentum.

Kernan's Armagh tenure was given a different type of impetus: he took in seven players from the Armagh team that won the 2004 All-Ireland U21 title. Gavin has been luckier still, enjoying the regenerative jackpot of several U21 triumphs. Thus, even if veterans remain key cogs of the panel, they aren't guaranteed their starts. And, as Kernan concludes, this provides a "competitive edge" that most others can't match. Evolve or die? Far easier when you have the evolutionary options.

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