Darragh Ó Sé: Dublin still the masters – the likes of Galway still apprentices

Despite Donegal and Mayo’s hopes, the 2020 All-Ireland already looks like a done deal

James McCarthy: his trademark devastating run from deep set up Ciarán Kilkenny’s clinically-taken goal against Laois. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

James McCarthy: his trademark devastating run from deep set up Ciarán Kilkenny’s clinically-taken goal against Laois. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

You could tell Galway’s goose was cooked on Sunday when Shane Walsh was standing over that line ball. He was struggling to find any Galway player moving for him, so he looked down the line to Pádraic Joyce, as if to say, “What’s my move here?” Time was running out, he had already missed a couple of kicks at goal and everything was on the line. In that situation, you have to be the man in charge.

If I was one of the Mayo players in that situation, you couldn’t buy the lift that would have given me. Here we are, right in the meat of the battle, one more play to decide it all. Every man take your man, let’s see what he has. He’s their best player, he’s the one they look to, he’s the only one that can nail us here. If he scores from there, fair play to him.

Hang on – is he asking Joyce for permission to shoot? Oh ho! He doesn’t fancy it, lads. He’s rattled. Squeeze up, squeeze up. No easy ball. We have them. One more push and we have them.

That’s how it turned out. Walsh’s options suddenly would have felt very limited standing where he was standing. The Mayo players were ravenous and every half-second he spent wondering where to go, they only got hungrier and tighter.

In the end, they forced him into playing a low ball to Johnny Heaney who had Paddy Durcan breathing down his neck. Durcan, as sticky a back as there is in the game, got a hand in to disrupt it and next thing you know, it’s a line-ball to Mayo. Game over.

Just to be clear now, Galway didn’t lose because Shane Walsh was looking down to Pádraic Joyce for advice. But that moment tells you a lot about where they are relative to what it takes to win an All-Ireland.

Shane Walsh: indecisive with the late line ball, the Galway star looked down the line to Pádraic Joyce, as if to say, “What’s my move here.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Shane Walsh: indecisive with the late line ball, the Galway star looked down the line to Pádraic Joyce, as if to say, “What’s my move here.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Walsh is a fabulous footballer but Galway had already spent the majority of the game relying on him to drag them through. When the guy who has spent all day as the main decision-maker in attack is suddenly looking to his manager to decide what to do when the game is on the line, there’s not much left in the year for you I’m afraid. You can be sure that Joyce himself would never have dreamed of it.

Right now, everybody is grasping at straws trying to find somebody to beat Dublin. There might have been a stage early in the year when Galway were a possibility but not any more. Same for Kerry, same for Tyrone. Who have we left? Realistically only Donegal and Mayo. And even at that, can you see it happening? I can’t.

Dublin haven’t changed. They haven’t let up. They haven’t taken the foot off the gas since Jim Gavin left. They are completely self-sufficient at this stage. In a million years you wouldn’t see any of them looking to Dessie Farrell to ask what to do with a line ball. It’s James McCarthy’s team and Ciarán Kilkenny’s team and Brian Fenton’s team. They’re the decision-makers, first, last and everything in between.

Look at the confidence they have in everything they’re doing. Kilkenny’s goal on Sunday only comes off when you’re completely sure of yourself. The ball skidded away from him but he still would have had time to gather it up if he wanted to play the percentages. But you’re talking about a guy who is in total control of his skillset and his decision-making. Why pick it up when you can bury it in the bottom corner on the half-volley?

Impossible situation

That goal summed up the gulf between Dublin and everybody else. Laois had been sticky enough in the opening quarter of the game but Dublin were easing away before Kilkenny’s goal. And it was the trio of Fenton, McCarthy and Kilkenny that killed the game off. The combination of skill, power and correct decision-making was too much to Laois to handle.

I had a bit of sympathy for the Laois centre-back Patrick O’Sullivan who was marking Kilkenny as the move got going. Fenton fed McCarthy in around midfield and he came onto it like a high-speed train. He picked it up on the Laois 65 and all it took from him was one hop, one solo and one fist pass and Kilkenny had all the time in the world to decide what way he wanted to take the goal.

It was a clever run by Kilkenny, who had come out towards McCarthy before digging his heel in and turning to go in behind. O’Sullivan got caught between going out to meet McCarthy and keeping tabs on Kilkenny. He ended up looking like he had lost his man but really he was in an impossible situation. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.

The key to the goal though is the key to everything Dublin do. At the highest level, football comes down to three questions. Do you have the skills? Do you have the physique? Can you combine them efficiently? Everything you do away from the pitch is geared towards giving the best answers to those three questions when you go on it. And nobody has better answers than Dublin.

Look at what McCarthy did for that goal. He started his run on his own 45, leaving his man for dead before the ball had even reached Fenton. How many times have we seen him join in an attack like that over the past decade? A few hundred maybe? When Dublin are humming, that’s what they want to see – their big, athletic horse of a wing-back galloping forward and scaring the life out of the opposition defence.

They have done that move over and over and over through their glory years. Laois had to know all about it – everybody who has ever watched them knows all about it. But because they’re so completely self-sufficient at this stage, McCarthy is able to see that opportunity long before it presents itself. And bang, he’s away and there’s nothing Laois can do about it only hope that he makes a mistake.

Laois’s Patrick O’Sullivan is challenged y Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny. The manner of Kilkenny’s goal summed up the gulf etween Dublin and everyone else. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Laois’s Patrick O’Sullivan is challenged y Dublin’s Ciarán Kilkenny. The manner of Kilkenny’s goal summed up the gulf etween Dublin and everyone else. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

No chance. By the time he lays of the fist-pass to Kilkenny, he has run 60 metres at full pelt. For an ordinary player, the needle might be drifting into the red zone by that stage and the pass might not hit the target. But McCarthy, like all the Dublin players, has the skills of the game perfected by now. So without breaking stride, he plays a 20-metre fist pass over the top of O’Sullivan and it’s a goal all day.

Dublin will play better teams, of course they will. And you’d imagine, with all the analysis that goes into these games, that whoever is marking him from here on out will promise themselves that whatever happens, he won’t get a free run the length of the pitch again. But when you’re faced with somebody that powerful, that skilful and that used to doing the right thing, you can make all the promises you like. When you’re faced with a team of them, it’s prayers you need, not promises.

Compare that goal to the most memorable point we saw from Galway on Sunday. Early in the second half. Shane Walsh ran the length of the pitch soloing off both feet, turning Lee Keegan this way and that and kicking a brilliant point when he cut inside. An unbelievable score and he’s probably the only player in the country who would attempt it, never mind actually pull it off.

But again – and I don’t want this to come across like I’m down on Shane Walsh or anything – but is that really the sort of score that an All-Ireland contender wants to be relying on? Walsh ran from his own 45 to the Mayo 20 with the ball. That is obviously not the most efficient way of getting the ball up the field.

Most efficient

In commentary, Darragh Moloney says there’s only one Galway forward ahead of him – this is when he gets the ball on the Galway 45! You couldn’t imagine Kilkenny or Con O’Callaghan feeling he had to run the length of the pitch with the ball. That would never be Dublin’s best option.

It was an amazing point, absolutely. That’s not the first time he has run the length of the pitch to score an outrageous point this year – he got one against Meath in the league as well. But at Dublin’s level, football isn’t about amazing points.

It’s all very well me saying teams have to learn to match Dublin’s skills, their physique and their efficiency. But the All-Ireland final is only four-and-a-half weeks away

What’s the last gallery point you remember Dublin scoring? There’s probably a Paul Mannion one somewhere along the way but in general, they have no time for them. They keep the ball, they work it into the easiest scoring position, they split the posts and they set up for the kick-out.

Dublin’s game is about affecting the play in the most efficient way possible. Walsh’s point will be in all the end-of-year montages and highlight reels. But he didn’t touch the ball in open play for seven minutes after he scored it. He kicked a free but apart from that, the game passed him by. If I was after running the length of the pitch with Lee Keegan for company, I’d need a breather too.

Look, nobody wants to take flair players out of the game. That’s not the point I’m making. But if Galway want to make the leap to All-Ireland contenders under Joyce, Walsh’s talent is a unique weapon that will be a crucial part of it. So they have to work out what the best use of it is.

The same goes for everybody left in the championship. But the more I see of Dublin, the more that all feels like a job for the future. Here and now, they just look so tuned in to the way of playing that won them the five-in-a-row – and especially the last three of them – that the 2020 All-Ireland looks like a done deal.

It’s all very well me saying teams have to learn to match Dublin’s skills, their physique and their efficiency. But the All-Ireland final is only four-and-a-half weeks away. The up-and-comers might be able to make a shape at it next year. For 2020, I don’t see it.

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