Darragh Ó Sé: Dublin’s mastery of basics makes four-in-a-row a formality
Jack McCaffrey's pass for the Dublin goal on Saturday typified their brilliance
Jack McCaffrey: his inch-perfect pass to Niall Scully set up O’Callaghan for Dublin’s goal against Galway. No other team possesses their array of skills. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Of all the things we saw over the weekend, nothing stood out to me more than Jack McCaffrey’s fist pass to set up the Dublin goal.
The Dubs get a lot of snide talk thrown around the place about them. Everybody gives out about the big resources and the money and the fact that they don’t have to travel and all that stuff. Everybody thinks Jim Gavin has the handiest number in football. Sure couldn’t we all manage the Dubs?
And yeah, all that stuff is fine. You can hide behind it all if you want. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that the players just turn up and win. I don’t care what resources they have or how big the backroom team is or how many sponsored cars are available to them. The skills of the game are still difficult to master and you only do it by doing the work.
I could watch that McCaffrey pass to Niall Scully all day. When people used to ask me about what made Colm Cooper special, I always referred to the skill he had of making the next lad’s job easier for him and even often making up his mind for him. I wouldn’t be able to count the amount of times I saw him over the years give a kick pass to a team-mate that landed with the right speed in the right spot so that the receiver had no choice but to do what the Gooch wanted with it.
Any county footballer can kick the ball 20 or 30 yards into a fella’s chest. That’s just an entry level skill of the game. The better players are the ones who are able to see what can develop if the right ball is played, the ball that goes five or six yards if front of the next player, pointing him towards the posts, causing panic in the defence and opening up the game. That’s what the top level of the game is about – playing football that is a half-step ahead of the other crowd, who are themselves serious players to being with.
So go back to McCaffrey, running down the right flank of the Dublin attack in the first half the last day. He got the ball on the 45 and drove at the Galway defence at his usual warp speed. James McCarthy makes a run inside to take a Galway defender away and as he is crossing in front of him, you can see McCaffrey think about playing a long pass to Scully who is drifting in from the Cusack Stand sideline.
But as we’re seeing more and more with Dublin this year, they don’t take chances. When’s the last time you saw one of them taking a potshot or trying his luck from distance? They don’t do it. In this move, McCaffrey saw Scully start his run in from the sideline but turned down the first pass because the window was just too tight. Instead, he took a solo and a hop and got closer, allowing Scully to drift in behind Seán Kelly on the Galway 20-metre line.
By the time Kelly realised the danger, it was too late. I wouldn’t blame him too heavily because against most players on most teams, he would have got away with it. His mistake was to get caught very briefly standing side-on watching McCaffrey coming down his wing rather than making sure he had Scully covered in behind. But even so, for McCaffrey to punish Galway to the max, he had to be able to pull off a 25-yard fist pass on the run, with the ball going left as he drifted to his right.
I think sometimes we take the skills these top players have for granted. The size of the window McCaffrey was aiming at there was tiny. Eamonn Brannigan had to loop around McCarthy’s decoy run inside so McCaffrey had a bit of space to deliver the pass but even so, he had to split Brannigan and Kelly with it while aiming at a spot 15 yards from where Scully started his run.
The best players anticipate the next fella’s fallibility. When the lad they’re giving the ball to is only a mortal, they allow for that and tighten up the margin of the mistake they can make. They make the next move as foolproof as possible. They all but tie a bow on it.
Scully is a fine player in his second season who does all the right things for Jim Gavin, everything carried out to the letter of the law. He timed his run in behind Kelly to perfection and he knew that McCaffrey would be the sort of Rolls Royce player who’d be able to pick a pass into that space.
But once he got there, it was so perfectly weighted that they could have called one of the heroes down from the Hill with a couple of Saturday night pints on him and he’d still have put Con O’Callaghan in for the goal. I’m not saying that to do Scully down – I just mean that McCaffrey’s pass was so good that it gave him no option other than to create a certain goal.
That was the major difference between Galway and Dublin on Saturday night. You can talk about set-ups and game plans and transition and all the other buzzwords till you’re blue in the face but eventually, everything comes down to execution. While the Dubs were doing it without even thinking, Galway were giving passes to fellas’ ankles.
There’s a domino effect in everything. Because McCaffrey gave a perfect ball to Scully, Scully could give a perfect ball to O’Callaghan and Dublin had their goal. The same is true in reverse. If you’re a Galway player getting a bad ball, you can only give a bad ball. Time disappears on you before you know it. All of a sudden, the Dubs have you swallowed up and they’re away and gone.
A few minutes after the goal, Galway launched an attack down the left wing. It came from a half-block on a Ciarán Kilkenny shot that hopped into Ruairí Lavelle’s chest. The Galway goalkeeper came out with it and picked out the corner back Eoghan Kerin. I’ve liked watching young Kerin this season – he’s a hardy animal in the corner, although he didn’t have a great day on Saturday.
In this passage of play, you wouldn’t look at it and think he did a whole pile wrong. He could see that Kelly was in plenty of space up ahead of him – and if he hadn’t, Lavelle was roaring at him as soon as he gave the ball to make him aware of it. Ciarán Kilkenny had spotted it too and set off on a sprint back to cover.
Kerin needed to play a kick pass of about 45-50 yards to get Galway moving up the pitch. You could see by his body language that he knew there was a break on if he could pick the right ball. In fact, I’d say his execution of the kick suffered because he got a small bit too excited and kind of hurried his kick.
It wasn’t a terrible pass or anything – the ball found Kelly in space and Galway kept possession and were able to launch an attack. But the problem with it was that it was about five or 10 yards short of what Kelly needed. Kelly had to wait on it and take it back-pedalling on the turn around midfield. By the time he got facing the Canal end, Kilkenny had made up the ground and was able to cut off his route to the Dublin goal.
Here’s the domino effect. Kerin didn’t hit a bad pass, just a slightly underhit one. Kelly wasn’t in trouble because of it, he just wasn’t able to hit full speed straight away. Kilkenny didn’t dispossess Kelly or even get a tackle in, he was just able to shadow him, discourage him from trying anything dangerous and make him turn back looking for support.
Galway played the ball through the hands a few more times, over and back, over and back before Seán Armstrong eventually sent a pot-shot high and wide and into the crowd – and then turned and cried to the ref for a 45.
Remember people used to question Kilkenny’s kicking style? Not anymore
From a position where Galway had started out with two of their players having more or less the whole left side of the pitch to themselves, they ended up putting a slow move together that allowed all the Dublin players to get back in position and caused Armstrong to have to shoot under pressure and give the ball back. All because a kick-pass was just a few yards underhit at the start of the move.
Contrast that with a point O’Callaghan scored in the second half. Brian Fenton made a brilliant mark from a Stephen Cluxton kick-out. He was probably entitled to a free because the Galway players didn’t get out of his way but he just bent a lovely ball round the corner to Con O’Callaghan who had broken out from the full-forward line. Turn, bang, over the bar. The whole thing took about seven seconds from Cluxton’s kick-out and the skills of all three Dublin players involved made it look like the simplest score imaginable.
They are so far ahead of everybody. Look at how each of them has improved their basic skills in the time Gavin has had them. Remember people used to question Kilkenny’s kicking style? Not any more. Or that Dean Rock was only a man for the frees? Not any more. You could go on.
Dublin are a joy to watch. They give you the full array of skills every game they play and that’s what ultimately grinds the other teams down. They keep possession so well because that skill of transferring the ball is so honed in them. When they know they can do that, it’s just a matter of waiting for the right man to find the right pocket of space. It’s no accident whatsoever that most of their scores come from in front of the posts.
No other team has their array of passing skills, fielding skills, shooting skills and tackling skills. Everything else flows from there.
The four-in-a-row is a formality.