Evolution the solution for new blue revolution
Even in two years Dublin have evolved into a different team under Jim Gavin
The scoring exploits in Sunday’s All-Ireland senior football final of Bernard Brogan, seen here scoring the first of his two goals, earned him the RTÉ man-of-the-match award. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Dublin joined an elite group with Sunday’s All-Ireland win. Since 1990, only Kerry and Tyrone have won two titles in three seasons and Kerry remain the only county since Cork in 1989-90 to have won back-to-back All-Irelands.
The football championship has become more competitive in the qualifier era, with and extended All-Ireland series getting under way with quarter-finals on the August weekend.
Dublin’s win has put a stop to the run of different champions, which covered five years, 2008-12.
For teams to achieve repeat success, the issue isn’t to do with preserving their strengths but with constantly evolving, finding newcomers who can bring a new dynamic to the team.
One of the problems for Donegal this year was the panel lacked depth and as a result the team was vulnerable to injury and fluctuations in form.
Dublin have evolved significantly since the 2011 All-Ireland success, under Pat Gilroy. There were six changes in starting personnel compared to two years previously.
Not all of the change has been ascribable to natural evolution. Of the six players gone, only the retired Barry Cahill and the injured Alan Brogan have not been available and the remaining four, Michael Fitzsimons, Kevin Nolan, Denis Bastick and 2011 captain Bryan Cullen are all on the panel, but only Bastick has seen regular action.
Into the team have come under-21s Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny (who made his debut under Gilroy last year) and Paul Mannion, and if all three were taken off in the final – Mannion with an injury – they have senior All-Irelands and a wealth of useful experience.
Tactically, there have also been changes, with more of an emphasis on attack and less protection for the defence, plus a bona fide 20-man match day panel.
In retrospect, Dublin’s All-Ireland series – playing Cork and Kerry en route to the final – proved serious preparation.
The Kerry semi-final was the subject of greater hype but Cork have been a touchstone for Dublin since the current team began to emerge: beating them in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final and the following year’s league final.
Now retired Cork manager Conor Counihan says the development of Dublin has been easy to identify, even in the past two years.
Last month’s quarter-final was Dublin’s first championship win over Cork since 1995 but it was a fitful display, during which Cork kept the pot simmering
“The obvious thing with Dublin is the kick-out strategy,” says Counihan. “It looks so easy at times but they have sheer pace all over the place and it gives Stephen Cluxton options.
“I still feel we should have done better but believing that and managing it are different things. Maybe just going zonal on kick-outs rather than man-to-man would make it harder for them to find space.”
Although there have been times when opposing teams have cracked Cluxton’s kick-out codes he always manages to sustain a spell of cleverly directed re-starts, most obviously in the second half on Sunday, despite being the most targeted goalkeeper, from this perspective.
Against Cork Dublin took a long time to pull away and close the match despite creating a number of goal chances and having considerable advantages of speed and scoring opportunities.
“To be critical, you’d look at their conversion rate,” is Counihan’s principal criticism.
It has been a testament to the work done since the quarter-final that the accuracy of score- taking has improved. Although the outcomes weren’t great, Bernard Brogan’s diligence in making himself available for ball was impressive and he gave Eoin Cadogan a wretched time.
That performance marked a turnaround in his fortunes and in the semi-final against Kerry he kicked four from play against Marc Ó Sé before receiving the RTÉ Man-of-the-Match citation for his display on Sunday.
In a match of tight margins, Brogan’s improvement matched the team’s. He ended with 2-3, 2-2 from play, and only one wide, and his quality finishing obviously had a huge bearing on the result.
Counihan outlines what he saw as the significant improvements in Dublin’s game.
“This year they had more pace and significant experience, as well as strength in depth. Every match subs came on and they all added something to the team. He stuck with his subs, which worked for him.
“It’s a cliché at this stage but football really is a 20-man game now. On Sunday you couldn’t help but notice that the Mayo subs didn’t make the same impact.”
Replacement policy is a familiar issue to Counihan, as in 2010 he frequently kept experienced players on the bench and finished the match with a stronger selection than had started. He agrees with Dublin manager Jim Gavin’s maintaining a consistent selection on the bench despite the occasional pressure to start players who had been making a regular impact as replacements.
“You don’t want to be bringing on young fellas in the heat of battle in an All-Ireland final. You’ve also got to weigh up the impact on individuals. Will the fella that’s normally coming on be as good starting and will the other fella work as well when he comes into the game?
“It can be hard on a player who’s going very well as a sub but can’t get a start. In general though, you’re not really looking at this from the point of an individual but of the team. What’s best for the team?”