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Kevin McStay: Dublin should make history with two or three points to spare

Jim Gavin’s men may not be the force they were but they are still a brilliant team

Dublin’s Jonny Cooper after his red card in the All-Ireland final with manager Jim Gavin. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

In the real world the past week has been dominated by the return to schools and colleges: the seasonal excitement and upheaval. Yet the awareness of this Dublin-Kerry unfinished business has been thrumming away in the background.

And for both camps the days have been all about corrections and considerations, and then wiping the slate clean for Saturday’s replay.

Let’s just turn the clock back to the hours after the drawn game on Sunday, September 1st. For Dublin, Jim Gavin set the tone straight away. They were proud of the character and resilience, but not at all happy with the performance. It’s a message we have heard before. Then they disappeared.

Kerry’s feelings were more mixed. Could have won it. Could have lost it. They stayed in the city that night and then returned home.

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Already thoughts would have been returning to the lessons learned from that drawn game. It’s the old saying: the big eye does not lie. You can’t ignore what you see on television replays. But this is where management as art or science comes into it.

Purely on the evidence of the drawn game, for instance, Dublin would be reluctant to start Jonny Cooper for the replay. But while there may well be changes in Dublin’s starting team, Jonny won’t one of them.

Gavin trusts and needs him. One poor hour doesn’t change that. The Dublin management know that Jonny is reflective and rounded enough to go away, look at his own performance, empty his head of all negative thoughts and then go again. The top players are able to do that.

So there is every sense that Cooper will be back on David Clifford the next day. Dublin won’t concede that match-up. Other selections might be trickier, though.

In the run-up to the final there was a sense that the selection meetings wouldn’t last for five minutes. The teams effectively picked themselves. Within a week things have changed dramatically.

Dublin coughed up around 3-4 in untaken chances to Kerry in the first 35 minutes. The All-Ireland could have been over at half time.

They also lost out in the vaunted midfield battle. Jack Barry came in and did well in that sector. David Moran was magisterial. On that evidence, Dublin will have to change midfield. And that makes things look iffy for Michael Darragh Macauley as they won’t be dropping Brian Fenton.

Dublin do have options: Brian Howard played well in a deeper lying role and he could be pushed up as a midfielder. If they select Cian O’Sullivan at six and push James McCarthy up to midfield, they might get new energy from him.

So these, I feel, were the primary issues up for debate in the Dublin boot-room last week.

Two big questions

Simultaneously, there are two big questions for Kerry. How come in that last quarter they lacked the energy and drive to go and win an All-Ireland that was there for them?

The obvious answer is that Dublin’s conditioning is just deeper than Kerry’s. Not only did Kerry not have a score in the last 12 minutes, they didn’t have a shot. They had five turnovers against them. They were badly outfought by a 14-man Dublin team, whose scramble defence was outstanding.

They could only cross their hearts when Dean Rock stepped up to take that last-second free. The game was out of their hands just then.

Also, Jack McCaffrey’s 1-3 is the main reason that there is a replay. I have watched the game a few times and still can’t figure what Kerry’s game plan was for McCaffrey.

I think they were trying to cope with him in a zonal way. The problem with that is once he takes off you can’t touch him. If you block him, it is a black card. You can’t let him get that head of steam. You need a conscientious, dedicated and touch-tight marker.

This famous hammer-the-hammer theory that Kerry like to employ seemed obvious for this problem. I feel that Paul Murphy is perfect for that role. Stephen O’Brien was having a shot at covering McCaffrey, but Kerry want and need him in an attacking mindset. So they may have to offer up a half-back when they go about dealing with McCaffrey on Saturday.

That 1-3 must be irritating for Kerry because they got so many of their match-ups right. The one that didn’t feature too prominently in the discussion afterwards is the Rock performance from open play. Jason Foley got well taken over the course of the game by Rock; three points from play is too much. We tend to overlook how good Rock has been in finals for some reason.

So a lot of alternative personnel have presented themselves for Kerry. Brian Ó Beaglaoich, GavinWhite, Jack Sherwood, Killian Spillane, Tommy Walsh and James O’Donoghue will be wondering, with good reason, if they are going to start the next day. Jack Barry may well start again. I don’t understand why Sherwood isn’t getting that promotion also.

The other big question hovers over Tommy Walsh. He is a player of such clearly defined attributes that selecting him means you are going to play in a certain way. Do they stick or twist? To put it another way: you are asking do you pick a team and then establish tactics? Or do tactics come first, and you fit players around those?

Go-to man

If you start Walsh then you are going with a two-man full forward line, with Paul Geaney likely to be the other inside player. And then what happens in that scenario to David Clifford?

Well, he drifted out to the 40 last time and became ineffective. My own sense is that they will wait again and bring Walsh in. That might suit Tommy. The revival of his Kerry career has been wonderful, but I am not sure that the needs the pressure of suddenly being the go-to man.

Incidentally, a photograph went around of Walsh getting ready to lift David Moran for Rock’s late free. I checked it out: there is no rule that covers that. If he had caught it two metres above the bar it would have been fine. You can imagine the madness! This has happened previously in a Leitrim county final where one guy lifted another to prevent the score. So they could certainly use Tommy if they find themselves one up or level and Rock preparing to strike a 77th-minute free!

Tommy not starting again leaves Clifford as the main focal point of Kerry’s attack, and him facing Cooper is a fascinating prospect. Think about what Cooper had to go through this past two weeks. He is still Dublin’s best defender. He has loads of experience. He will be going out with a point to prove.

The big unknown in all of this is Clifford’s mindset. He may also be annoyed at his performance. For all we know he may have spent the last two weeks fuming that he missed those early chances. He’s a guy with a huge personal level of expectation. So there is nothing to suggest that this will be straightforward: that Cooper will set the world to rights and Clifford will be subdued.

Because of this I think that Cian O’Sullivan, if fit, will be restored to his sweeping role. He will give that extra line of protection to the Dublin full-back unit so that the Kerry passer has to take that extra second to make sure he by-passes that cover.

And that second’s delay in the delivery gives Cooper vital time to be in the right place to cope with Clifford.

O’Sullivan gives Dublin familiarity and reassurance: he knows this role backwards. He doesn’t tend to man mark, which means that other teams have a plus one immediately. It’s a trade other teams are willing to make because it means they have a bit more cover themselves in defence. They are content to let Cian do his thing.

So for years he has been allowed to roam free and anticipate the incoming ball, cut off those angles, sweep up breaking ball and move possession on to a ball-carrier.

Brave team

Kerry have the option of putting a body on him and making him work for those possessions. But that means one less in defence. It takes a brave team to push up like that against Dublin.

Kerry did so against the Dublin kick-out – and were caught for it. One thing is for sure: if you don’t get the defence right against Dublin you are in trouble. So you have to careful as to how you go about these things. And if O’Sullivan starts Kerry’s counter-move is the first thing I will be looking out for.

What do Dublin lose if they go with the O’Sullivan option? Well, they are going to have get somebody else to pick up Sean O’Shea. And who will that be? John Small is the probable candidate. McCarthy at six has great drive and gets involved in the offence. They will lose that thrust.

Kerry will have emphasised the positive things from their All-Ireland final experience. That’s important. Shane Ryan in goals was under a lot of pressure and really came through. Eleven new guys looked well at home in their first senior final. The match-ups were generally good. They created chances. And they weren’t beaten. They didn’t lose to Dublin! All of these are true.

But if you don’t take on the negatives too then you aren’t asking yourself the right questions. That’s when a top class management comes into: a management who don’t do “group think”.

Kerry will address these issues. How were they four down at half time? It was surely down to their shot efficiency – 8 of 17. Nine wides is an ugly number in a final. Those figures are not associated with the Kerry All-Ireland tradition.

Why was the lack of energy so pronounced in the last 10 minutes? There was a ball for Sherwood on the D, for instance, that he should have got his hands on and didn’t. I’m a fan of Jack but he should have made that ball. Somebody will say that to him. It can’t all be praise and “you did great here”.

Donie Buckley will have had his eyes and ears wide open to where Kerry are at in their mindset. They can’t be content to simply have another chance. They need to have more self-belief and bring an aggressive mindset to match that of Dublin.

There is no sense that their chance is gone. The idea of a double-digit defeat in the build up to the drawn game was laughable. It is 43 years since Kerry got what could loosely be called a hammering in an All-Ireland final.

Railroading

I have three graphs that I use to evaluate a team: rising, level or dipping slightly. And I don’t think anyone could argue that the Kerry graph is not rising. But if you look at Dublin’s performances against the better teams, they have not been railroading the opposition the way that they used to. That 2-6 against Mayo came against a team whose graph is descending.

But still: they were plus-five on two occasions against Kerry and almost went plus-six. That would have sealed the five in a row. They may not be quite the force that they were but they are still a brilliant team.

Both teams can improve. I feel Dublin have more scope in this regard. They will get more from midfield. My sense is that Kerry will need to play better the next day and then to get up to around 75 per cent execution rate. But they know they can compete. I would be talking about this chance to do something really special if I were in their camp: the new 1975. Winning this All-Ireland gives them mad possibilities.

But I am sticking with my sense that Dublin will soak up the adversarial moments, cope with the stress of a close game and put a five-on-a-row seal on this fabulous era with two or three points to spare.

History to be made.