Darragh Ó Sé: Dublin’s bench strength gives them the crucial edge
The champions have the subs to kick for home during the vital final quarter
Diarmuid Connolly: would straight away become the best non-injured player ever to be held out of an All-Ireland final starting line-up. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The thing to remember about All-Ireland finals is that there is so much we don’t know at this point, even though we know these two teams so well. The Dubs are playing Mayo on Sunday for the fifth time in three seasons so you’d think by now we’d all be fairly sure of our ground going into this one. But these games all go their own way.
Think about it like this. It’s Wednesday and we don’t know if Diarmuid Connolly will play or not. Imagine at the start of the year you were told that Dublin would be playing in an All-Ireland final and there’d be doubt over whether or not a fully-fit Diarmuid Connolly was going to get his place for the final. You’d tell the barman goodnight and head out the door laughing to yourself.
We don’t know what Mayo are going to do with Aidan O’Shea. We know he’ll be standing in front of Joe McQuillan for the throw-in but where will he be after five minutes? Edge of the square? Centre-forward? Midfield? Further back?
He’s done every job for them this summer short of carrying a magic sponge in his pocket to save the physio a walk. On Sunday, everybody in the stadium will have half an eye on the game for the first few minutes and half an eye on O’Shea.
Speaking of Joe McQuillan, who has a bigger role than him on Sunday? I can’t think of an All-Ireland final referee in recent years with more pressure on him. This looks like a bit of a hospital pass for him. I know getting an All-Ireland final is the ultimate accolade and all for a referee that but you’d nearly be careful what you wish for here.
Like it or not, Joe has refereed two All-Ireland finals that Dublin have won. He also refereed the last game they lost in the championship – against Donegal in 2014 – but people don’t remember him for that. I’m not saying it’s fair or right. But it is what it is and there’s no point pretending it won’t be a factor.
Subconsciously, Joe has a big job on Sunday. There’s bluff and double bluff and even triple bluff in it for him. The first 50-50 call is going to be noticed by everybody. It will be there in people’s heads. If he gives it to Dublin, the Mayo crowd will go to town on him straight away. If he gives it to Mayo, the Dublin crowd will be louder again, saying he’s only doing it for show. He can’t win. If it was me, I might just be coming down with a tummy bug on Sunday morning.
Here’s what we do know. This is the best team Mayo have had. I know you might say it’s the same Mayo team but I disagree. It’s a better one. They’ve improved together, physically, tactically, skills-wise, everything. The Mayo collective is as strong as I’ve ever seen it. Those days when you knew you could dismantle Mayo if you closed down Cillian O’Connor or ran the legs off Aidan O’Shea or made Lee Keegan defend – those days are gone.
Who have they relied on this year? You can’t pick one guy above all the rest. Aidan O’Shea was the man in the early qualifiers, Andy Moran was brilliant both days against Kerry. Keith Higgins ran the show in the replay against Roscommon, Keegan saved them the first day. Colm Boyle and Donie Vaughan have popped up to dominate games, Seamie O’Shea came roaring back in the Kerry replay. Cillian O’Connor is an ocean clear of the country at the top of the scoring charts.
So as Dublin are going through their game plan and playing around with match-ups, it isn’t a simple case of going after their main threat. They have no end of threats – and they all have to be respected.
It’s not simple to break them down either. Dublin have improved their tackling massively this year but they’re still only the second best tackling team in the country. Mayo have been the best at it for three or four years at this stage. So all those runs from deep that Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy and John Small have been crucifying teams with up to now aren’t going to be just as successful as they have been. Anyone coming through those channels is in for a bumpier ride than they’ve been getting.
The task that this lays out for Dublin is a seriously tough one. Jim Gavin’s main advantage is that he has the manpower to go about his business. If I was over Dublin, there wouldn’t be the slightest question over starting Connolly. There is no risk attached to it, there’s only an upside. And yet, I have a feeling that Gavin might hold him back.
When you think about it, that tells you something incredible about the depth Dublin have. Connolly would straight away become the best non-injured player ever to be held out of an All-Ireland final starting line-up. And it wouldn’t cost Jim Gavin a thought because he knows that guys who do take the pitch will all go seamlessly about their business. They’re all totally absorbed in the Dublin template. There’s nothing for Gavin to worry about in any of them.
People talk about Con O’Callaghan playing in his first final and maybe being a weak link. I don’t see that at all. The game will be faster than anything he’s seen so far but he’s been faster than everything anyway I don’t see him having a lot to worry about. This will be a different physical test to anything he’s had to face in Croke Park but it won’t be any more physical than what he’s come up against in training. If you can live with Jonny Cooper and John Small, then you’re not going to be overly surprised by an All-Ireland final.
I think the best way to look at this final is to move away from what we don’t know and stick instead to what we do. Above and beyond everything else, we know that when you compare Mayo’s first 15 with Dublin’s first 15, there’s not a lot between them. But when you extend that number out to 20 or 21, Dublin’s advantage goes through the roof.
Mayo can bring on Paddy Durcan without weakening the team. They can send in Conor Loftus and there’s a fair chance that he will continue his upward curve and get a score or set one up. After that, they’re crossing their fingers.
Stephen Coen is a solid performer but ask yourself this question – what difference is he going in there to make? He’s a general sort of half-back, half-forward but is he going to burst forward and kick a point like Keegan, Vaughan, Boyle or Durcan? He had a good chance in the drawn game against Kerry when the game was on the line but he got blocked and didn’t look very comfortable taking the shot.
This isn’t a criticism, that’s not what I mean at all. I’m just trying to show what limited options Mayo have beyond the starting 15. Here’s a lad who nearly always plays some part off the bench for Mayo, usually the second or third man in. But when it comes right down to it, he’s a containing sub. He’s someone you’re putting on to fight for dirty ball, to move possession, to be a strong runner, all that good stuff. But I don’t think he’s expected to be a match-winner.
Now look at the Dublin bench. We don’t know the team yet but there’s every chance that Gavin will have at his disposal Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O’Gara and maybe even Connolly. They might sneak Cormac Costello in yet as well. Michael Darragh Macauley is an impact player too.
Think about these games now. In the drawn final last year, Conor Lane kept playing until the 82nd minute. You used to be able to look up at the clock and see it go past 55 minutes and shout, “Right lads, last 15, let’s go”.
Now when you see 55 minutes on the clock, you’re knuckling down for at least another 20 minutes and maybe the guts of half an hour. And in an All-Ireland final filled with desperation and tension, it’s going to come down to the level your squad can play at.
The way I see it, this is Mayo’s biggest worry going into the final. I don’t think they have anything more to fear from Dublin over the first hour than Dublin have to fear from them. They match up well all across the pitch, they will keep the Dubs from streaking away into the distance, their experience, conditioning and sheer balls might even have them ahead when the clock turns 60.
But from that point onwards, you need to be at optimum output. Because there is no question or doubt about it – Dublin will be at optimum output all the way to the end. Anyone who dips at all will be sitting in the Hogan Stand inside a couple of minutes and Gavin is able to bring on match-winners as replacements.
Brass tacks, he is able to bring on more of them than Stephen Rochford can. If Mayo are able to think their way around it, it will be the greatest management coup we’ve seen for years. Any of us would love to be standing on a sideline, seeing a problem out on the pitch and turning around to call Bernard Brogan or Michael Darragh Macauley down to solve it. We could have fun doing that. There is no fun in Rochford’s future on Sunday. Not when it comes to this crucial point in the game.
That’s where we are when you apply cold logic to it. If we’re finding arguments for Mayo to win, we’re stretching our debating points a bit further than they probably deserve to go. We’re saying that everyone has to play well, we’re saying they have to get a fair shake and better from the referee, we’re saying that they have to think their way around that vital closing period when the game is close.
That all goes for Dublin too. The difference is, Dublin have the most valuable commodity of all. They have more top-class players than Mayo when you take their bench into account. That more or less puts the rest of it to one side.
Dublin to win by three or four points.