Dessie Farrell: Better championship showing still leaves big questions for Dublin manager

Winning following season’s All-Ireland always easier said than done, with time taking a toll and lack of quality replacements

The reappointment of Dessie Farrell as Dublin football manager and, more interestingly, the consensus that had quickly formed around it long before the announcement, represented a fair old turnaround from six months ago.

Back at the end of February, the county had lost again in the league — equalling their worst record of losing the opening four fixtures — and on that occasion in Newbridge, presented Kildare with a first competitive win over Dublin since the turn of the century.

Farrell rescued what he could from the exercise.

“This is a great test of character for us all and a huge opportunity to build resilience and through adversity come to greater strength.”


He would continue to prove as stoic as Diogenes during the remainder of the campaign, always facing the music after matches, especially when relegated by defeat in Monaghan where he could have taken refuge in the GPA dispute but came out for questions.

Chaotic defending

Ironically, the one time the manager had cause to celebrate, after the authoritative win over All-Ireland champions Tyrone, he actually was prevented by the dispute involving the players’ representative body from discussing the happy outcome with the media.

That final match in Clones was another disaster, chaotic defending allowing Jack McCarron to run riot, and having dropped from the top flight for the first time since 1995, Dublin faced into a Leinster campaign suddenly full of new and unfamiliar pitfalls.

If the previous year had come unstuck between league and championship — exhibit A, the lockdown training breach — this year followed the opposite course. In rational terms, the improvement centred on the return to fitness of Con O’Callaghan, who had missed the entire league and exploded into the championship.

By the end of the Leinster championship, he had scored 2-12 but injury kept him out of the All-Ireland matches. His three-match total though made him the joint-highest scorer from play in the championship and underlined the loss he was in the semi-final against Kerry.

Furthermore, his performances made the Dublin attack multidimensional. The team averaged 30 points a match in the province, compared with 15 in the league, a massive jump even allowing for the disparity in quality of opposition. Those scoring averages for Leinster were also a whole 11 up on last year and comparable with the Jim Gavin era.

The one-point defeat by Kerry surely played a role in securing the further term for Farrell. To lose by the minimum to the eventual champions in the absence of such an influential player as O’Callaghan suggests that Dublin haven’t far to travel to regain top spot in the game after two All-Ireland semi-final defeats.

You never step in the same river twice, however, and it remains to be seen what effect long-awaited success has on Kerry and the extent to which they kick on. For Dublin, progress would have to be built on the second-half comeback and not the first half when, starved of initiative, they trailed by five points.

But for an inexplicably poor penalty by Seán O’Shea, that deficit would have been eight and the match out of sight.

Division Two campaign

There has been a lot of speculation concerning the first Division Two campaign the county will experience for 15 years. Will the lower standard facilitate the blooding of new players to a greater extent? An obvious point is ignored. One of the clearest benefits of being in the top division is that team building gets stress-tested at the highest level.

You have to go back more than 20 years to find a team, Armagh, that fashioned an All-Ireland-winning campaign from Division Two.

As of yet, there is no news about the proposed backroom team and whether it will be refreshed for the new, two-year term. This has become an increasingly important element of managerial appointments and it would be a surprise if Dublin officials haven’t been given some indication of what’s in the pipeline.

If the county is to maintain the improved trajectory of this year’s championship there will need to be greater emphasis on collective tactics rather than individual inspiration.

This applies to attack and defence. In the latter case, the unit is ageing. Michael Fitzsimons will be 35 next year, James McCarthy and Jonny Cooper 33 whereas Eoin Murchan and David Byrne have injury problems to sort out. Lee Gannon was the brightest of the rookies but keeping it all on the straight and narrow will be a challenge.

Up front, there are also diminishing resources. Dean Rock, at 33, is the only one on borrowed time and a decent front six can still be fielded but one of the keynotes of the Gavin years was the ability to maintain threatening tempo when the bench was being emptied. That level of impact has definitely dropped.

With a panel that’s getting on in years, there is always concern about retirements but especially when there is a noticeable slowing of high-quality recruits coming through to put pressure on team places.

Former Dublin forward Eoghan O’Gara told The Irish Times earlier in the summer that he experienced that very pressure in the later years of his career.

“The hardest part was that the form was as good as when I had been starting but that same form was no longer good enough to get into a match-day squad. Trying to get the head around that was very difficult.”

That is clearly no longer the case and neither is it Dessie Farrell’s fault or responsibility.

When Ger Brennan, All-Ireland-winning Dublin centre back and now UCD’s GAA executive, was asked to assess the talent tributaries in the county from his perspective in July, he didn’t mince his words.

“It’s definitely drying up; it definitely is drying up. I think that the cohort of Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Dessie’s minor team back in 2011 and in 2012 — that group of players, their natural quality, I haven’t seen it just yet in what’s coming through now.”

Although the season ended on a more optimistic note for Dublin than it began, Farrell is well aware that despite coming so close to the eventual champions and with good excuse, winning the following year’s All-Ireland generally looks easier at this time of the year.