Darragh Ó Sé: Rattling Dublin won’t be easy but Mayo have no choice
Stephen Cluxton and Cian O’Sullivan are the two players the underdogs must target
Stephen Cluxton fails to stop Paul Geaney scoring a goal for Kerry. Cluxton is Dublin’s strongest link and if you break that, there’s a chance the whole thing goes to pieces. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
It’s an odd kind of All-Ireland week. Nearly every conversation I have about the game goes the same way. We spend 90 per cent of it coming up with ways that Mayo will put it up to the Dubs and then in the end we shrug our shoulders and say the Dubs will find a way to win.
In a way, it’s only natural that neutral people should try to talk themselves into a Mayo win. What fun would be in it if we all went into Sunday thinking it was a foregone conclusion? You want to see an All-Ireland final be a close-fought thing. So you hear someone saying that Mayo are 3/1 with the bookies and you start thinking, “Well now, that’s the kind of price I like in a two-horse race.”
And so you start wondering. Why are Mayo regarded as such no-hopers? Have they a load of injuries? No. They’re missing Ger Cafferkey and that’s it. He’s their only loss from the team that took Dublin to a replay last year, whereas Dublin are down Jack McCaffrey and Rory O’Carroll. If anything, that should be advantage Mayo.
Is it because they’re playing badly? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. They’ve had one terrible performance against Galway but every game since has just been a matter of getting through. They’ve done what they had to do in every game. Who’s to say they won’t do the same on Sunday?
Is it because Dublin are the best team in the country? Again, maybe so. But does that mean they’re definitely going to be the best team on Sunday? Doesn’t work like that, believe me. Dublin won’t be handed the cup as soon as they drive in the gates. They have been excellent for a long time but you still have to do it on the day.
I definitely give Mayo a squeak here. I go back to their win over Tyrone and what it would have done for Stephen Rochford. Up to that day, he was still an unknown quantity. He hadn’t proved anything. But the tactics Mayo came up with that day worked to perfection and that kind of thing carries forward.
That would have raised his credit rating with the players no end. Up to then, I have no doubt some of them were sitting in team meetings thinking, “Grand, yeah, whatever – we’ve all been around a while so you’re not telling us a whole pile we don’t already know here.”
But in that Tyrone game, they were smart, which they haven’t been in big games before. In all the big games they’ve lost, they gave away bad goals at the wrong time. They couldn’t afford that against Tyrone in a low-scoring game and they only gave up one chance, which the goalie saved. Out the field, Aidan O’Shea passed off the ball instead of trying to do everything himself. They played like a team who has been around the block, with a gameplan that was suited to that particular game.
So Rochford can be brave here. Whatever gameplan he gives them, he has their trust now. To beat Dublin, you need to commit fully to it. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Do everything possible to distract Dublin and throw them off their rhythm. But whatever you do, don’t half do it.
We associate Dublin with loads of scores and loads of chances and free-flowing, attacking football. And for a lot of the year, that’s what they’re like against the teams that they blow out of the water. But when it comes to tight games, Dublin are about control. They go through their buzzwords and their process, they work the openings, they look to be controlled at all times. Mayo’s job on Sunday is to disrupt that control.
Let’s go back to Stephen Cluxton. When have we seen Dublin be vulnerable? When Cluxton’s kick-outs come under pressure. The key thing to note in that wobble before half-time the last day isn’t just what Kerry did, it’s what the rest of the Dublin team did. When they saw that Cluxton was rattled, they were rattled.
People went on about the fact that the next kick-out he took after Darran O’Sullivan’s goal went out over the sideline and saw it as a sign of Cluxton having a meltdown. But where were the rest of them? Since the dawn of time, every team has had a midfielder who puts his hand in the air when his team is in trouble and demands the kick-out be landed down on top of him. That’s the gig, boys. Do it or go find another one.
Cluxton’s kick-out went over the sideline because he overhit it. Okay, fair enough, that’s not great. But even if Cluxton’s kick had been perfect, you have to ask why he was aiming it out there to James McCarthy who had two Kerry lads ready to hop on him. It was a dicey situation no matter how good Cluxton was.
I was looking out across the pitch and I saw fellas making runs alright but they weren’t getting free like they had been before. Some of this was Kerry’s doing, pushing up and cutting off the space. But some of it was down to the fact that a few of the Dublin players froze when they saw their main man make a mistake. It’s amazing what a little loss of control can do.
At times like that, I think Dublin pay the price for having gone so many years without kicking out the long ball to midfield. Cluxton has been so good for so long in keeping possession from the kick-out that no Dublin midfielder has had to take the pressure off him since Ciaran Whelan.
I have no doubt that Brian Fenton has it in him to win a high ball played out to him but is he in a position to demand it yet? Would he be bold enough to give Cluxton an earful after the goal and tell him that the next kick-out is his, no questions asked? If not, then that’s a vulnerability on the Dublin side.
As it happened, Kerry kicked a wide from the attack they set up from that kick-out that went over the sideline. But in a way, that didn’t matter. The tone was set. The Dublin team take their lead from Cluxton. Most days, that’s a great thing. But when it goes wrong, they can be got at. I’m not saying he’s a weak link. It’s actually the opposite. If you break the strongest link, there’s a chance the whole thing goes to pieces.
So Mayo have to target him. It has to be a key part of Rochford’s gameplan. I think they can afford to push up but they have to pick their moments like Kerry did. You can’t do it every time because he’s so fast off the mark with his kick-outs. So it has to be after a free or a 45 or an injury – something to get their players in position high up the pitch.
I actually think he has lost a few metres off his long kicks in the past couple of seasons. Dean Rock kicks all the 45s now and all the long frees. But when Dean had a bit of a wobble himself near the end of last season, Cluxton came forward and you could see he was forcing them. He missed three in the final last year because of it. Mayo can press up a few metres further than they would have in the 2013 final, for example. Every little bit helps.
The other player who is absolutely key for Dublin is Cian O’Sullivan. Rochford has to have a plan for him. My idea here would be to bring Cillian O’Connor out to play on the 40. O’Sullivan’s main job at centre back is organising his defence, as we outlined here a couple of weeks ago. As a result, it’s rare enough that he has to do some old-fashioned one-on-one defending.
O’Connor has not been as dangerous as an inside forward this season as before. His form has dipped – I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. He was never overly quick to begin with and I think to a certain extent the top defenders have worked him out. He’s never going to take the ball and skin you with pace so a defender can get good and tight to him and force him to shoot under pressure. That gives him very little margin for error.
So how about mixing it up a bit? Bring him out to the 40 and give O’Sullivan a problem. O’Connor is good at winning his own ball, he plays with his head up and you could see him getting turned and playing those low, quick balls into Andy Moran.
O’Sullivan is brilliant at cutting out diagonal balls played into the D or mopping up breaking ball when Jonny Cooper or Philly McMahon punch it away. But if he had Cillian O’Connor to deal with constantly, he’d have to be a bit more honest and a bit more involved. If Mayo got some joy out of it early on, they could move O’Sullivan around a bit.
None of this is easy. O’Sullivan is very hard to shift from that spot in the centre because he is so disciplined and he knows what his job is to the letter. But this is an All-Ireland final – you can’t just submit and decide to play on his terms. You have to give him something to worry about. Get him doing stuff he isn’t used to doing. Get him out of his comfort zone.
Every gameplan on All-Ireland final day amounts to the same thing – make the other crowd uncomfortable, get them doing the things they don’t want to, force them out of their own gameplan and see how they like it. How do they react when all the stuff they talked about in team meetings isn’t panning out? Do they improvise well? Or is that when they’re vulnerable?
Years ago, I played an International Rules game where for some unknown reason I got stuck playing full back. God only knows why anyone thought it was a good idea but I was there anyway and Cluxton was the goalkeeper in behind me. At one point, the Aussies got a goal and it was probably my fault.
tephen Cluxton fails to stop Paul Geaney scoring a goal for Kerry. Cluxton is Dublin’s strongest link and if you break that, there’s a chance the whole thing goes to pieces. photograph: donall farmer/inphoBut at the time, I didn’t see it that way and I gave my goalkeeper an earful for it. Cluxton being Cluxton, he gave me one back. I saw it on TV later and it was the perfect snapshot of a team in disarray – a big inquest between the full back and goalkeeper. No control, no comfort zone.
That’s what Mayo want to see on Sunday. They want to freeze the frame and see Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper and Stephen Cluxton jawing at each other. Disruption all over the place. Have no doubt, it can be done.
My gut feeling is that they can do it. But can you really go against the Dubs? Probably not. Everything I’ve laid out here is possible but it’s also just as possible that Dublin will find their way around it. In fact it’s probable, not just possible.
So this column will go the same way as all those conversations. I’ve come up with plenty of ways for Mayo to put it up to them. But I still think Dublin will probably win.