Acknowledging the cloud on a sky-blue horizon
Would Dublin accept that they’d have preferred a finale more in keeping with their most successful season in decades?
Having been supportive of referees, Jim Gavin might come to regret – however privately – his criticism of referee Joe McQuillan for the amount of frees conceded by Dublin in Sunday’s Al-Ireland football final. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
It was an ending of a different sort. For everyone who had been hoping Sunday’s All-Ireland final would crown a fine championship in fitting style there was disappointment at the scrappiness and lack of flow to the game. But that’s the way finals go. There’s no guarantee of quality and the higher the anticipation – and it was quite high at the weekend – the greater the chance of disappointment.
It’s a pity for Dublin that Sunday’s match was the vehicle for reaching their destination, the conclusion of the most successful year for the county’s footballers in four decades.
Jim Gavin and his players won’t mind particularly that the season’s finale was one of their least distinguished performances; after all they were playing their toughest opposition of the year, a team they were only marginally favoured to beat.
Dublin looked nervous and at times distracted in the opening exchanges and can be eternally grateful Mayo lacked the clinical edge to push them past the point of no return in the opening quarter, much as Donegal had done to the Connacht champions themselves 12 months previously.
Ultimately Gavin’s team had the forwards to score what they needed – just about, as it turned out, in the face of a run of injuries that nearly capsized the vessel within sight of harbour.
Looking back on the year, it’s been a formidable achievement for Gavin to re-structure the team, introduce new faces and re-orientate the game plan towards a more attack-focused approach – all in the course of winning the league and championship double.
In the light of all those plaudits, does the controversy about cynical fouling in the closing stages matter or even in some way colour the great success of bringing home the Sam Maguire trophy that had been won just three times in the previous 30 years?
It would be hard to say it doesn’t. Gavin has consistently upheld a certain style of football, based on positive values and during the debate on the disciplinary reforms of the Football Review Committee, he vocally supported the introduction of the black card, which is intended to combat cynical or calculated fouling.
On the weekend that congress accepted the proposal, he welcomed the decision, saying, “I’ve always endorsed the FRC’s work, said as well it was up to the county boards to put it forward whatever way they felt.
“But it’s good to see the clubs and counties have supported it, which obviously I agree with.”
12 fit players
There was, of course, a context to what happened on Sunday. Dublin had 12 fit players left on the field and were at times being over-run. What should have been on the face of it an uncomplicated closure of the contest became desperate.
But isn’t that the context for all deliberate fouling and what could be more desperate than hanging on to an All-Ireland victory in the dying minutes of a final?
Gavin’s response to questions about the deliberate fouling was to criticise referee Joe McQuillan for the free count, which had been 32-12 against Dublin.
“They were frustrated with the free count. That’s just not acceptable. Anyone here can ask if Dublin are a cynical team, and we’re not. We play the game with certain values, the way we believe it should be played.
There’s a double count going against us all the time. We’ve held our counsel for most of the games but that has been a trend in all of the games.”
The Dublin manager is generally very controlled in media situations, declining to engage with much enthusiasm but he has always kept things steady and avoided controversy.
You’d like to think he will – however privately – regret making those remarks because firstly, as someone who has been supportive of referees, he must accept that any match official can only adjudicate on what happens in front of him not on the basis of a team’s reputation.
There was a response to what happens and it wasn’t to maintain that players committed deliberate fouls in curious protest at having frees awarded against them. It was simply to say that in the fraught circumstances they had lost their discipline and regret that they had fallen short of the standards they had set themselves.
The black card will have an interesting impact on matches next year. For those who say the most cynical fouling happens only late in matches and therefore that having a player mandatorily replaced will make little difference, it’s important to remember that by the closing stages of a match most teams have run their bench and won’t have anyone to replace a black-carded player.
Would the calculation have been as simple for Kevin McManamon if his rugby tackle was going to reduce his team’s playing strength by one in those critical closing minutes?
A more serious issue has to be the fact that Rory O’Carroll played for the final 15 minutes or so with concussion. Enough is known about the lethal dangers of second-impact syndrome for this to be a major concern.
Dublin have insisted they weren’t aware of his condition but had they realised and acted, the team would have been down to 14 men.
Given that substitution policy in the case of blood injuries – which are very rarely going to be potentially fatal – is to allow unlimited replacements, surely if there is any question about a player being concussed, his replacement shouldn’t count as a normal substitution.
This might require an independent medical officer but it’s a deadly serious issue.
Finally it must be recorded that throughout the year Gavin, his back-up team and players have done much to honour the memory of the late Kevin Heffernan, who must be raging to have missed a year in which Dublin won the Leinster hurling title, the league and championship football double and – above all – beat Kerry on the way.