herald

Friday 6 December 2019

Sole defeat's huge impact

Donegal's win in 2014 shaped subsequent success and forced Gavin to change style

31 August 2014; Michael Darragh MacAuley, Dublin, reacts after watching his shot go wide during the closing stages of the game, surrounded by, left to right, Donegal's Declan Walsh, Ryan McHugh and Neil Gallagher. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Tomas Greally / SPORTSFILE
31 August 2014; Michael Darragh MacAuley, Dublin, reacts after watching his shot go wide during the closing stages of the game, surrounded by, left to right, Donegal's Declan Walsh, Ryan McHugh and Neil Gallagher. GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship, Semi-Final, Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Tomas Greally / SPORTSFILE

Alone it stands in Jim Gavin's loss column as Dublin manager: Donegal 3-14 Dublin 0-17.

Now, amid all the tribute in the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the end of his reign, it seems somehow disrespectful to recall Gavin's sole championship defeat of the past seven silver-plated years.

Yet it had such an profound impact on the achievement he will ultimately be remembered for; Dublin winning five All-Irelands in a row between 2015 and '19, that it's central to any retrospective of his work.

There was, as Paul Flynn told the Herald recently, a lot riding on the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final from a Dublin point of view, more than we knew at the time.

"The sweeper systems and the defensive football were going to be made redundant if we could get this right in 2014. That's the way we saw it," Flynn explained.

"We were going to change the way football was being played - that's what we used to say."

Intoxicating

Dublin played their most intoxicating football that year.

At half-time against Donegal, Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly were neck-and-neck in the running for Footballer of the Year with only empty space behind them.

Then, Donegal plundered one of the great football upsets of the decade.

"I accept full responsibility for the philosophy and for the way Dublin play their football, for the attacking style we play and sometimes for the vulnerability that it brings and the unpredictability of it," Gavin said a couple of weeks later.

Mistakes had been made on the pitch; a yawning chasm appeared down the central channel of Dublin's defence and frees were missed at crucial times.

But the cause of the defeat, Gavin stressed, was systemic.

This was a rare insight into Gavin's management philosophy.

Responsibility for errors; be they technical, tactical or physical, can be traced back to a coach and by extension, him as manager.

It is, he explained before this year's All-Ireland decider; his final and crowning achievement, an ideology adapted from his professional life.

"The easy thing to do is to look at the front end of the flight deck and blame the crew," Gavin explained of the process of investigating aviation accidents, the nuts and bolts of his work with the Irish Aviation Authority.

"Most of the time it's an organisational issue."

"So if a player isn't executing his skill-set or the game plan, ultimately the root cause of it isn't the player - it's me."

"Because the reason the commercial air traffic that I regulate is so safe is because we've learned from horrific incidents, horrific accidents and routine mistakes every day. Football is no different."

After his public mea culpa, Dublin emerged for the 2015 season with greater devotion to their defensive play - the most noticeable tweak being Cian O'Sullivan's presence as a 'holding' number six/sweeper.

The initial adaptation period wasn't pretty.

Few who were at Dublin's 0-8 to 0-4 League victory over Derry in Croke Park in March could forget it quickly enough.

But the results were apparent.

In the 2014 League, Dublin conceded 8-94, an average concession of 16.8 points per match.

That dropped to 2-78 for the '15 competition, just 12 point per game.

They shipped only four goals in the 2015 Championship and held Kerry to 0-9 in the All-Ireland final.

By way of addressing their free-taking issues that day against Donegal, when both Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton missed kicks at times in the game when a score could have softened Donegal's momentum, Gavin cultivated the place-kicking talents of Dean Rock and put him into his team as a standing order.

Quickly, Rock established himself as the best free-taker in the country, enhanced his contribution from play and played in Dublin's next 63 consecutive League and Championship games, a run that lasted almost four full seasons.

There are those in Dublin who believe that but for that Donegal defeat in 2014, their team would have been going for seven All-Irelands in-a-row this year.

The greater likelihood is they would not have become the rounded, tactically versatile side that went on to dominate their game had Donegal not delivered that lesson and, more importantly, had Gavin not possessed the humility to learn from it.

That rusty sporting adage about learning more defeat than victory is probably true about Jim Gavin and Dublin.

It's just difficult to tell for certain because the sample size is so small.

Promoted articles

Entertainment News