Darragh Ó Sé: Curtailing Fenton’s influence must be Mayo’s starting point

Dublin star is the best midfielder in the game but every player is playable, no one is infallible

Brian Fenton wins a high ball during the semi-final victory over Cavan. He has all the attributes of a top midfielder  But it’s his decision-making and innate  footballing ability which are key assets for Dublin. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Brian Fenton wins a high ball during the semi-final victory over Cavan. He has all the attributes of a top midfielder But it’s his decision-making and innate footballing ability which are key assets for Dublin. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

When you watch Brian Fenton, you’d be wrong to just watch Brian Fenton. He looked unplayable at times against Cavan on Saturday night, the complete midfielder. He is composed on the ball, he doesn’t make mistakes, he can go right or left, off both hands and both feet. He is a brilliant footballer, no other word for it.

But before we get carried away with how good Fenton is, I think it’s important that we don’t overlook how the Dublin team around him helps him be the best he can be. Every great player has a context. You can be the best shooter who ever laced a boot but it will mean nothing if the others can’t get you the ball.

The starting point for every Dublin midfielder is Stephen Cluxton. In the past 10 years of the All Stars, there have been 20 midfield spots available and Dublin players have won eight of them. Four for Fenton, two for Michael Darragh Macauley, one each for James McCarthy and Brian Howard. Before them – and before Dublin were this big juggernaut – Ciarán Whelan and Shane Ryan won All Stars, Denis Bastick was nominated. The common denominator was the man feeding them the ball.

The game has changed throughout Cluxton’s time as the Dublin number one. A lot of the change has been down to him. The top prerequisite for being a dominant midfielder is no longer an ability to catch kick-outs over your head.

Cluxton has made it his mission to take a lot of the jeopardy out of that job and so now he either goes short to a defender or the ball that he plays to you is much more sympathetic. You don’t live or die by your ability to catch 50-50 ball.

It goes without saying that Fenton is well able to do his part on that score when he has to. If the game was still about midfielders fighting for kick-outs, he’d more than likely still be the best around at it. The point I’m making is that he doesn’t have to be. Watch him in the final – he will take more kick-outs on the bounce or into his chest than over his head, allowing him to get on the ball and get Dublin moving.

And when Dublin are moving, that’s when Fenton does his best work. That’s when he has James McCarthy or, this year, Robbie McDaid coming through off his shoulder. That’s when he has Niall Scully coming across him or Dean Rock digging his heel in the ground and leaving his marker on the turn. Most of all, that’s when Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan are demanding the ball off him.

I used to look at Dublin and marvel at the Brogan brothers. I thought they were gallery players, the kind of once-in-a-generation guys that come along and light up a team for a number of years and who leave a massive hole when they retire. Now I look at Kilkenny and O’Callaghan and I wonder if they’d been around a decade before, would we have ever heard of Alan and Bernard?

So if we’re going to talk about Brian Fenton in comparison to the great midfielders the game has seen, we have to acknowledge his advantages. Down the years, I watched Brian Mullins, John McDermott, Anthony Tohill, Niall Buckley. These guys all played on excellent teams in a given year but they also played on some fairly average ones too. And even some that only dreamed of being average!

It’s not Fenton’s fault that has hasn’t played on an average team yet. You could argue that he has a big part of the reason for that. I always hear people talk about the fact that he hasn’t lost a championship game in his career. But the same goes for another nine of the team that played against Cavan on Saturday night.

Constant supply

I was lucky enough to play on a team that contended for the All-Ireland most years. I had that structure around me that allowed me to play my game and took away any excuses I might have been looking for if I wasn’t up to scratch. The quality and character of the players around me allowed me to focus on what the job of a midfielder was and how best to go about it.

Fundamentally, midfield play is about maintaining a constant supply of possession. It’s about being available to fellas who are looking to get rid of the ball and moving it to the players who are in a better position than you. That basic job never changes. You might not have to catch 10 balls above your head anymore but you still have a huge responsibility to be available for your own kick-out.

Fenton never shirks that job – he either makes the run for Cluxton to hit or he drifts over to the side of the corner-back who has taken the short one. One way or the other, he takes charge. That’s one of the things that elevates him.

Another thing sounds basic but you’d be surprised how few midfielders it applies to. He is a really good footballer. He’s not playing in midfield because he is tall or because he has a great engine or because he’s a physical specimen – although all those labels apply to him too. He’s there because he is skilful in possession and when he goes forward he doesn’t have to worry about whether he should be shooting or not.

For his last point on Saturday night, he had gone in full-forward for a bit of a breather. They showed the replay from behind the Hill 16 goal – as Dublin advanced, he made a move to go one way then sprinted out around his man to take the ball on the burst and turned to hook a point over his shoulder.

It was textbook full-forward play. Think of all the other good midfielders in the game over the past few years and there’s very few could have pulled off that move. Seán Cavanagh, yes. After that, you’re struggling.

When you don’t have the ball, the job changes. Every team has a defensive set-up now where players fill pockets and cover off zones. As a midfielder, you generally don’t have the sort of marking job that Johnny Cooper or Lee Keegan would have. It can be a bit looser, which actually only makes it harder.

I always felt that my job in that scenario was as a sort of roaming defensive helper. If my man was on the ball, then I was the one who had to stop him or slow him. But I thought it was just as important to be the second man into a tackle when someone else’s man was on the ball. A midfielder has that looser arrangement that means you can be an extra pair of hands if you go in at the right time.

But what’s the right time?

Well that comes down to possibly Fenton’s greatest strength – his decision-making. Midfielders make more decisions in a game than anyone else. If you’re a defender, your decisions are dictated by the man you’re marking. If you’re a forward, regardless of you much licence you have you are still bound by your attacking game plan. But when you’re a midfielder, the shape of the game is yours to dictate – if you make the right decisions.

Best midfielder

Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. How often do you see Fenton commit to a tackle but get fooled by a quick pass or a dummy solo by an opponent? How often do you see him take the wrong option in attack, trying to force a pass where it won’t fit? Once a game? Once a year?

The reason he is the best midfielder in the country is that his reading of the game is just so good. If you can read the game well, you can make good decisions. Where is the best place for me to be? Who needs me right now? If I go into that space, who fills in behind me?

Again, it’s important to make the point here that the person filling in behind him is usually James McCarthy. That makes life a bit easier, whoever you are. But even so, Fenton’s awareness of where he is on the pitch and his decision-making in each situation is his greatest asset.

So what are Mayo going to do about it? They have a week and a half to come up with a plan for him. So how do you go about stopping him?

The first thing I would do is watch him when he’s enjoying himself. With the Dubs, it’s probably not a great use of your time to be going back over the days they played badly because whatever mistakes they made that day, you can be sure they have addressed them.

So with Fenton, I would take a look at some of his best performances and see what makes him tick. What does he like about playing football? What are the things that get him in a good rhythm and making good decisions? Taking those things away from him is always a solid place to start.

Well, for one thing, I look at him and I see a guy who likes getting on the scoreboard. So I’d start from there. These teams have huge analysis now on where guys shoot from, how they join the play, how they create space for a shot, how one-sided they are. I would be taking a day between now and next week and making that my sole focus. Here’s where he has scored his points from – well, he’s not going to do it on Sunday week. Not on my watch.

So what else does he like doing? He’s a beautiful runner around the pitch, really athletic in the way he glides across the ground. Well, there’s plenty of things we can do to upset that. He’s not entitled to a free and easy run up the field, no more than the rest of us. I would watch a video of how John Small operates over the course of a game. Be tight, be sticky, be awkward, be strong, be a pain in the ass. Get a hand in his chest, run across his line, make it uncomfortable and annoying.

Upset him

Above all, I would go into the final with the intention of sacrificing my game in the initial stages so as to keep Fenton from enjoying his. That might sound a bit defeatist but you have to face facts. This guy is the best midfielder in the game and if he plays to his potential, Dublin almost certainly win the six-in-a-row. So I wouldn’t have the slightest bit of ego about it – I’d make it my job to first and foremost upset him doing his.

Games go in phases, we all know that. If I was playing against Fenton, the first phase would be all about making sure he knows that today isn’t one of those enjoyable days where he gets to stride around solving problems for Dublin and kicking a few nice points. Obviously he is going to come to play too and he’ll want to impose himself on me. Let it be a battle, I’m fine with that.

Once we get through that early phase, if there’s a chance to get forward and grab a score for myself, so be it. The power dynamic between two midfielders can change quite easily. All of a sudden, he’s being asked questions he hasn’t been faced with all year. Maybe he has the answers, maybe he doesn’t. Let’s see.

Every player is playable, nobody is infallible. Not even someone as exceptional as Brian Fenton.

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