Sometimes you’ve got to just keep your mouth shut and see what you can learn from what’s going on around you. I thought I knew about Ulster football and Ulster football men but I found out I didn’t know the half of it. The Sky Sports studio and the RTÉ studio are side by side down where the Hogan Stand meets the Davin so there’d always be a certain amount of intermingling before the games.
I was chatting away to Peter Canavan and Jim McGuinness on Sunday when Joe Brolly landed in. “What about ya?” he said to Canavan, the way Ulster people say hello. Canavan gave him a very short answer (second word, “off”) and walked away. I always thought the two boys got on well enough so didn’t know what to think.
I was surprised at two things – one, that anyone would take Brolly enough to heart to get that annoyed at him in the first place. And two, that as war was breaking out in Ulster, a Kerryman like me was in the middle like Switzerland.
I spent my career wanting to beat the feckers and now they were all my friends and couldn’t stand the sight of each other. In a situation like that, how would you know what end of you was up?
I was jealous of the Kerry players on Sunday, there’s no point saying otherwise. They managed to beat Tyrone in Croke Park, which was something I never did. I was willing them to win and they did but they had to overcame a poor enough display in the first half to do it. That’s good positive stuff to be bringing into an All-Ireland final.
On Sunday night I met Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Mikey Sheehy here in Tralee. I got the sense from them that they’re just about exactly where they want to be. No matter who they get in the final, they can find a chip on either shoulder. If it’s Mayo, then Kerry didn’t get the credit they deserved for beating them last year because everyone said Mayo threw it away. If it’s Dublin, there’s 2011 and 2013 to make up for. No problem finding an angle for motivation one way or the other.
The second semi-final is going to be fascinating for so many reasons. I’ve heard a lot of people tipping Mayo but I think a good bit of that could be early-week talk. The closer we get to the game, I’d expect the tide to turn a bit. I think Dublin fans are a small bit nervous about it but don’t be surprised if you see them standing more and more upright as the week goes on.
I think a possible reason people might give the nod to Mayo is that we expect both teams to set up more or less in an old-fashioned six-two-six formation, leaving it a straight man-on-man battle in midfield. Mayo have come on leaps and bounds in that area of the pitch, whereas Dublin aren’t as strong there as they are in other places. In a straight-up battle, Mayo could definitely have the upper hand there.
But that’s the thing with Dublin – they don’t make it a straight-up battle in midfield. They don’t have it as two v two. They have it as two v two plus Stephen Cluxton. That’s the X-factor in any analysis of the midfield battle – how Cluxton will try to shape the game and what Mayo will do to combat him.
In the quarter-final, Mayo showed that they are becoming more flexible with age. They couldn’t afford to allow Michael Murphy get in for a goal so they played a sweeper. Not just any sweeper but Barry Moran – a six-foot-five sweeper.
That shows a good bit of imagination from Mayo. When did you ever hear of a six-foot-five sweeper? A sweeper is usually a ball-player, a guy who reads the game, picks up the scraps and kick-starts attacks. But Mayo decided that Moran was the horse for that course. Dublin present a different challenge so I’ll be very interested to see what they do with him this Sunday. I’d say there’s a good chance they’ll change it up again altogether.
I’ve said it plenty of times but it’s worth repeating. Cluxton is the key to Dublin. He is the place you start when you want to go about beating them. This is a ballsy Mayo team that will surely go out with the aim of targeting his kick-out and making him kick it long.
If they can do that, then Tom Parsons and Séamus O'Shea have a right chance of getting the upper hand on whoever is in the Dublin midfield – I presume it will be Michael Darragh Macauley and Brian Fenton but they might chance Denis Bastick in there from the start. Whoever it is, Mayo have the match of them. But how do you get Cluxton to kick long?
People say you have to push up on the kick-out, as if it’s the most simple thing in the world. But you have to understand how fast everything happens down on the pitch and how much concentration that takes. The next time you see Cluxton chip the ball out to Jonny Cooper and you want to give out about the corner-forward who has left Cooper free, think about how much has gone into getting Cooper into open country.
First off, Cluxton is already thinking about his kick-out while attempted shot is still in the air. He doesn’t care if it’s a point or a wide at that point, he’s switched into kick-out mode already while you’ve got your neck craned to see where the ball is landing. When they changed the rules a couple of years ago to make it so that all kick-outs were to be taken from the 13-metre line, it was perfect for him. Point or wide, he can roll the ball out to the 13 and get on with it regardless.
So the speed at which he takes his kick can catch you out. He has his players totally tuned in to his wavelength so they’re already moving into position. A few of them are making dummy runs that they know won’t be hit but they’re drawing your men away with them.
You’re doing the best you can to get all your players switched on and all doing exactly the job they’re supposed to be doing but we’re dealing with split-second decisions here. Cluxton decides on who he’s hitting and how he’s hitting them. You’re trying to pre-empt his decision while marking your man.
Hesitate at the wrong moment and bang, he’s hit it 40 yards into Cooper’s chest. Or whoever’s chest. You didn’t do a whole lot wrong and yet you’re on the back-foot while Dublin pour forward in possession. They’re in control and you are reacting. That’s not where you want to be.
I always felt that the key to pushing up on Cluxton was keeping your eyes fixed on him. Now, that was easy for me to say because he never kicked the ball out in my direction anyway. I’d be telling lads to watch his eyes and his head and his body language to pick up clues as to where the ball was going and they’d be going, “Yeah, thanks for that Darragh. ‘Tis a hard life marking the fella he’s not kicking it to’.”
But the key point is that if everyone is tuned in and covering their men, Cluxton has to think two or three times about what he’s going to do. He always wants to take his first option. He wants to plonk the ball down, chip it 20 yards and get the game going. Watch how annoyed he gets when he’s had to take two or three runs at the ball because all his easy options are covered off. He’ll bawl his team out of it for not getting into space.
The reason for all this is that he doesn’t have a midfield that can dominate in the air. Michael Darragh has been the key midfielder for Dublin for the past five years but when was the last time you remember him catching the ball above his head?
That’s just not his game. Fenton and Bastick do it a bit more but usually on the opposition’s kick-out. A huge percentage of Dublin kick-outs hit the man in the chest, exactly where he wants it. Cluxton doesn’t look for them in the air if he can help it. And he can usually help it because he’s such a brilliant footballer off the ground.
But if Mayo can cut down his options, they could be in business. That means the forwards being tuned in every second of the game. It means the defenders who are on Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn and Ciarán Kilkenny being just as alert as the forwards and not letting them get a run on them as Cluxton is coming out with the ball.
We know that Dublin half-forward line will all run 50 yards to make themselves an option for the kick-out. The Mayo half-back line have to do the same, over and over and over. It’s a physical challenge and a mental challenge. But the rewards are huge if you can crack the code.
That’s a really big ‘if’, though. Every team tries it but who succeeds? In the end, I fancy Dublin to hold them off on Sunday. Cluxton is just too good at putting Dublin in possession. Everything else flows from that.
Flynn is due a big game because he hasn’t had a good summer. Connolly and Kilkenny are playing mighty stuff, Bernard Brogan and Dean Rock have been so sharp all summer. The simple fact of this game is that if they get enough possession, Dublin will score more than Mayo. They have the greater spread of scores and more players that you would bet your house on when the game gets tight.
Dublin by three.