Dublin’s regeneration process doesn't lack for detail
Jim Gavin hasn’t been slow to expand options through extensive auditioning structure
Dublin manager Jim Gavin: “He has that capacity to see in a guy particular qualities and they very rarely disappoint. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
When Jim Gavin started out in his first championship with the Dublin seniors just over five years ago, he used 20 players against Westmeath. For one reason or another – including retirement, long-term injury and voluntary withdrawal – seven of those footballers will not be involved in Saturday’s visit to Omagh to take on Tyrone.
A turnover of nearly a third in that time mightn’t be remarkable given the demands of inter-county football, but it has been a feature of Gavin’s tenure that young players get fast-tracked onto the seniors and in many cases without lengthy apprenticeships.
There is a system, though, and in the past couple of years the auditioning has taken place in January during the O’Byrne Cup when the senior county panel is away on holidays and Paul Clarke is charged with identifying talent that can be further road-tested in the national league.
Last year’s most successful graduate, Niall Scully, played in five of Dublin’s six championship matches, including the All-Ireland final, and started four of them. His energy and hard running were obvious assets at wing forward but some of his finishing could have been better, and this is the aspect of his game that has shown a marked improvement, from 1-6 in 13 appearances last year to 4-11 in the 11 to date this season.
The evolution is clear: athleticism and a big engine are great, but you need to be able to take scores in the Dublin attack.
The January auditions are taken sufficiently seriously that players entitled to go on the team holiday have been known to stay back in order to make deeper impressions, as Colm Basquel did earlier this year. Basquel has been regularly involved in the championship to date, making three appearances – for 0-3 from play – in four matches off the bench.
Brian Howard, whose excellent progress was forensically detailed by Eamon Donoghue in these pages (https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/gaelic-games/gaelic-football/gaa-statistics-brian-howard-proves-worthy-of-paul-flynn-comparison-1.3569362) on Thursday is another who stayed back in January after two championship appearances off the bench last year.
His CV was well established, with a key role in Dublin’s under-21 victory in 2017 – the last at the now-abolished grade – with a team that wasn’t by any means favoured to win the title in the company of Kerry, serial All-Ireland minor champions, the Galway side that shocked them in the semi-finals and Donegal, who had beaten the Dublin cohort at minor.
As a group they decided that to get the best out of themselves, work ethic would be hugely important
There was an echo of that towards the end of Dublin’s imperfect win over Donegal last weekend when former Meath All-Ireland winner Bernard Flynn, doing radio analysis for RTÉ, commented that although Con O’Callaghan, last summer’s Young Footballer of the Year, had been having a difficult evening, his work rate was still immense.
Dessie Farrell managed the county’s last two All-Ireland wins at under-21 and he says that O’Callaghan’s attitude would have been typical both of him and last year’s 21s.
“On paper,” he says, “that team probably punched above its weight last year in terms of its pedigree and where they were coming from in terms of under-age. As a group they decided that to get the best out of themselves, work ethic would be hugely important and any success they got would be based on that.
“Con has great awareness and he’s very grounded. Despite his schedule [the under-21 football was his second All-Ireland in seven weeks last year; he’s won two more since] I could always trust him to say when he needed a rest and when he was okay. So it’s no surprise that he would know how to work through a frustrating game.”
Howard’s arrival mirrored that of his clubmate Brian Fenton, who within a year of Dublin’s 2014 All-Ireland under-21 success had been integrated into the senior team, initially making three league appearances as a substitute before starting the last three matches of the successful 2015 campaign and becoming an ever-present in the following championship, culminating in his first All Star.
“Jim Gavin is a very good judge of racehorses,” is one long-time observer’s view. “He has that Aidan O’Brien capacity to see in a guy particular qualities and they very rarely disappoint.”
Already the under-21 team of last year has contributed five players to varying degrees to Gavin’s team. O’Callaghan was obviously already on his way and ended 2017 with an All Star, and Howard has followed through this season.
Then last Saturday, out of the blue in one of those routine changes to a team unveiled earlier in the day, it was announced that Eoin Murchan would make his full championship debut. In last year’s under-21 championship the compact Na Fianna defender had excelled as a man-marker and in the final had played really well on key Galway forward Michael Daly.
As a clubmate, Farrell is particularly well acquainted with Murchan, whose pace – according to one observer of Dublin training sessions – approaches the Jack McCaffrey Mach. Donegal might have been a course for the horse but he’s nonetheless joined the stable.
“Eoin has all the attributes,” he says, “but the obvious question was, would his size limit his progress? But the way football has gone – and I know it’s physical and the gym has become so important – the style of play is a little bit different. The sheer size of players isn’t the same issue as it was 10 years ago.
“The inter-changeability of positions and the fluid nature of the game means that someone like Ryan McHugh can be a strike player whereas in the past all you could do would be to put him in the corner and hope that he wouldn’t get broken up.
“Eoin has everything else – a real student of the game, curious about it and constantly looking to improve himself.”
The abiding threat to all serially successful teams is the mental challenge of climbing the mountain again and again when your rivals are still fired with the desire to it for the first time. For Jim Gavin, one clear solution is to regularly vary the mountaineers.