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Friday 15 November 2019

Kerry win battle of the bench press

Roche’s Point

Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin reacts after kicking a wide late in the second half during Sunday’s All-Ireland Football Final at Croke Park
Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin reacts after kicking a wide late in the second half during Sunday’s All-Ireland Football Final at Croke Park
Killian Spillane scores a goal for Kerry after coming on in the second half on Sunday

Gaelic football is a very simple game until we all start analysing it to death. But that's what transpires when a championship match finishes in deadlock. That is especially what happens when that match is an All-Ireland final.

So it is with last Sunday's breathtaking bout of unfinished business. How can you deliver definitive judgements when your seasonal finale proves anything but?

Thus, we'll spend the next 11 days endlessly dissecting the match recording for replay answers. And one key facet will focus on those players wearing numbers 16 to 26.

Who won the battle of the bench press? Are they likely to win it again? What subs are destined for promotion? For all the temptation, might it be a mistake to make your marquee Plan B part of your sequel Plan A? Time to start answering those questions ...

Who won the bench battle? Kerry, no question: Killian Spillane and Tommy Walsh shared 1-2, Spillane's goal transformed a game that was running away from Kerry, that goal would never have materialised but for Walsh ... you get the picture.

The Dub subs, meanwhile, contributed 0-0. All very straight-forward. But there is a more nuanced narrative: the Sky Blue replacements were actually pivotal in wresting back the initiative for 14 men after Spillane had kicked Kerry ahead in the 66th minute.

Nerve-jangling

In those nerve-jangling last 11 minutes (injury-time included), Kerry couldn't muster a single shot; and key to this was the fact that a team reduced to 14 men completed five dispossessions.

Three of those turnovers, all in added time, wer e forced by Dublin subs - Kevin McManamon twice and Diarmuid Connolly.

The first McManamon success, capitalising on David Moran's ill-judged foray into traffic, proved pivotal as it launched the counter-attack that culminated in Dean Rock's 74th minute equaliser.

And who provided the assist for Rock? Another replacement, blood sub Eoin Murchan, with an incisive foray and lay-off.

So, when you delve deeper, Gavin did get some traction from a bench that is suddenly being viewed in a more critical light - a long-lauded font of Dublin strength, now seen as a potential weak link.

But you still can't ignore the reality that Dublin subs took four shots for zero return, via Paddy Small (two undercooked efforts), Cormac Costello and Connolly (both wide, the former thanks to Hawk-Eye).

Small was unlucky with his first attempt, saved from above his bar by Shane Ryan. But that led directly to Kerry's goal - put it dead, they say, or dread the consequences.

Costello's misfortune could be measured in inches. Connolly may have been outside Dublin's beloved 'scoring zone' but this was the type of chance - from 45 metres, straight in front - that he has often nailed in the past. Small's second effort was a genuine Hail Mary that should never have been tried; but he did coax that despairing foul off O'Shea that almost won it at the death.

If you broaden out the topic to include semi-finals, both of which contained first half traumas for the winners, what you discover - once more - is that Peter Keane's bench has been absolutely vital to preserving their Sam Maguire dream.

Against Tyrone, half-time sub Jack Sherwood injected hard-running dynamism to the engine-room, as well as scoring a point. Tommy Walsh provided the next surge, with two assists to draw Kerry level; he also offered a kickout target and it was probably no coincidence that David Clifford and Paul Geaney grew in influence once Walsh came on to occupy the Tyrone defence.

Which brings us to an intriguing contrast with the champions. Mayo had set the first half agenda to lead by two points - but Gavin didn't make a single change at half-time.

What followed over the next dozen minutes of devastation would more than justify this show of faith. He trusted his 15 to both work harder and work it out. When he finally introduced Cian O'Sullivan on 50 minutes, the game was over.

However, if you review that semi-final through the prism of Sunday's final, you can spot a trend: a reluctance to rush changes.

Dublin were four up at the break against Kerry, but that scoreline masked early defensive issues (three goal chances in 14 minutes) before you even factored in the dismissal of Jonny Cooper.

Gavin had four recognised defenders on his bench, but Murchan was the only one to see game-time - and even that move was necessitated by John Small's hand injury.

Notwithstanding subsequent rumours of an O'Sullivan injury, it was strange that neither he nor Philly McMahon saw any action in a game where Dublin's defensive unit creaked and where Kerry created five goal opportunities.

But the champions survived and so, too, did Kerry. Both could have lost; both could have won. Now the onus is on both managers to figure out why and act accordingly.

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