This time last year Jim Gavin would never have contemplated replacing Paul Flynn after 50 minutes in an All-Ireland semi-final.
With 20 minutes left in Dublin's replay win over Mayo the game was in the melting pot – yet Flynn was deemed surplus to requirements. It was the culmination of a championship campaign in which he has lacked the consistency and energy which earned him four consecutive All Star awards - the first man to do so in the qualifier era.
Along with Brian Dooher, Paul Galvin and Michael Donnellan in the 90s, Flynn has revolutionised the role of a half forward – he’s often referred to his own specialised role as that of an extra midfielder, an option for kick-outs, an extra body in defence, a link man and a scorer. This summer there's been a lot less of the zealous Flynn of recent seasons, but it has not been his fault entirely.
Having undergone surgery last January, Flynn returned to action in March – and the layoff seems to have altered his full frontal approach. He’s failed to last the full 70 minutes in 50 per cent of this summer’s games and in the two games against Mayo only 21 per cent of his involvements came in the second period.
Going back to Flynn’s debut season, one can see that it wasn’t until as recently as 2012/2013 that he started playing full games in the role regularly. From his debut season in 2008, when he didn’t start and finish a single game, until 2010, when he lost his place to David Henry mid-campaign and only started three games, the Fingallians man finished only 33 per cent of the games in which he started.
Then came 2011 and the first of his All Star seasons – he again started and finished 33 per cent of his six games. In 2012, this rose to 40 per cent, and then in the 2013 and 2014 campaigns it rose to 100 per cent. Following his non-existent pre-season, and interrupted league involvement he's yet to return to his herculean best, so far anyway.
While he has blown hot and cold this summer, the general consensus was that Flynn was one of Dublin’s better players against Mayo in the drawn game. In the first half he was directly involved in 1-4 of Dublin’s 1-7 and overall was involved on 13 occasions. This number, however, fell to four during the second half, and while he assisted a score and made his presence felt in a gritty encounter, there were 16 minutes between his first and second involvements of the half.
Things were much the same in the replay: nine first-half involvements became two in the second, and a 15-minute interlude between his first and second involvement brought about his substitution.
When you factor in that in the final five minutes (from 65 minutes) of Dublin and Kerry's last championship meeting in 2013 he had five involvements, or that he was averaging almost 20 possessions alone (not including turnovers etc) last season, the difference between then and now becomes obvious.
Another aspect of his game that has lost the consistency of recent years is his scoring.
The 29-year-old has averaged just under 0-2 a game, but his 2-4 all came in two of his six games. Last summer he scored in every game, averaging almost 0-3 per game (1-11 in five games). In the three seasons before that, he scored in 59 per cent of his championship games, managing 2-17 over 17 matches – as opposed to 0-3 in the 13 games he featured in before 2011.
Reduced tackle count
Against Mayo, Flynn had only one shot in both games and failed to convert either. Dublin’s defence has tightened up and perhaps additional defensive responsibilities have hindered his tendency to attack. This may also explain his reduced tackle count.
In the first half of the drawn game he did not engage in a single contact tackle, barring the one foul he made. In the second half, he made five tackle attempts. In the replay he had two turnovers, fouled twice, and made only seven contact tackle attempts. Instead, he spent his time screening runners, hands out, backing off into defensive zones. Not very Paul Flynn-like.
The major development that heavily affected his contribution against Mayo, however, was Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs. Over the two games, Dublin hit only five long kick-outs as Mayo sat back and surrendered possession. Flynn competed for two second-half kick-outs in the drawn game, and none in the replay. There were no 40-metre diagonal sprints to field the ball on the opposite sideline, and with that one of his major routes into a game was diminished.
Off the back of how that panned out for Mayo, and given the strength of Kerry’s midfield, that’s unlikely to be replicated on Sunday.
David Moran and co will be favourites to dominate any 50:50 ball Cluxton is forced to kick long, while Kerry have their own Duracell bear in the half forward line to assist – Donnchadh Walsh.
The in-form No 12 had 30 involvements against Tyrone, competing for two kick-outs outside of the three he won, and making 10 tackle attempts (contact) outside of his one turnover.
That earned him the Sky Sports man-of-the-match award, a possible benchmark performance for half-forward play this summer – a bench mark Flynn will plan on smashing this Sunday.
Ahead of a game in which physical contests will be far more regular, particularly around the middle, Dublin may be forced to look beyond midfield with their restarts - and then Flynn will be needed more than ever.