In working out what is happening with Dublin, it helps to ignore the noise and focus instead on what we can see. The story Dessie Farrell wants to tell about their current predicament is one in which his cast of performers is turning over at such a rate as to make an incoherent production inevitable. These are rehearsal glitches, the result of having to cattle-prod new actors onto the stage and the poor craythurs only fresh out of drama school.
Thing is, when you go to watch Dublin now, the evidence of your eyes says something quite different. They are going through a transition period, yes. But it’s not necessarily the one being peddled by either the Dublin management or the ex-player industrial complex. For all the talk of changing faces, there is a change of style hiding in plain sight. That they haven’t worked out how to do it yet is the most obvious reason they are where they are.
In reality, the turnover of players hasn’t been quite the seismic shock to Dublin the system you might imagine. Last Saturday night, Dublin started eight of the team who eased past Mayo in the 2020 All-Ireland final. Mayo started six. The Dubs had nine of the team from last year’s All-Ireland semi-final on the pitch at throw-in time. Mayo had six. If anything, it’s James Horan’s side who are giving the snowglobe its most vigorous shake just now.
Go back further and 12 of the starting 15 from Dublin’s 2019 All-Ireland final replay against Kerry are still involved, presumed ready for action - injuries permitting - come the last Saturday in April. Having to find three new starting players in three years is not exactly the most taxing transition period imaginable, especially when you’re starting where Dublin were.
Ah, but Dublin have handed out 10 league debuts in the space of three games. Into the team for their first taste of competitive senior football have come Lee Gannon, Lorcan O'Dell, Ross McGarry, Darragh Conlon, Cameron McCormack, Ciarán Archer, Killian McGinnnis, CJ Smith, Alex Wright and Harry Ladd. Surely that's nothing short of a revolution?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Add up the playing time of those 10 newbies and it comes to around 540 minutes, give or take the vagaries of end-of-game stoppage time. Three of the 10 account for around 420 of them. Gannon, who has started every game, makes up a shade under 210 on his own.
Of the others, only McGarry and O’Dell have featured in all three games. Conlon played pretty much the full 70 against Kerry but that was his only outing. McCormack and Archer have had bit parts here and there. The other four have seen only garbage-time, on the pitch for a sum total of around 15 minutes between them.
So yes, the Dublin panel of 2022 has plenty of fresh blood coursing through it. But if you slipped Farrell some truth serum and pinned him down to those he has genuine notions about for the summer, it’s probably only Gannon plus either McGarry or O’Dell as possible bolters. Archer will presumably be given another chance somewhere along the way, beyond being asked to chase a lost cause off the bench in a Tralee monsoon.
But assuming everyone is fit, the Dublin attack in the championship will almost certainly read Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny and Seán Bugler in the half forward line, with Con O’Callaghan at full-forward and two from the trio of Dean Rock, Cormac Costello and Paddy Small in either corner. Just the 34 All-Ireland medals between them.
Scully, Kilkenny and Bugler have played virtually every minute so far and Rock has been on the pitch for all but the opening half-hour against Armagh. Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, John Small, Davy Byrne and Evan Comerford have all been ever-present from the first throw-in as well and there have been cameos from Costello, Mick Fitzsimons and Eoin Murchan too. Some transition period.
When you’re watching Paul Daniels, you really should be keeping your eye on Debbie McGee. When the focus is on all the new faces Dublin have been bringing in, it serves as a handy distraction from the far more fundamental change they have undergone over the winter. Namely, their shift from a game that is based on keeping the ball in hand at all costs to one in which they are far more prepared to kick it into their attack.
One of the aphorisms Jim Gavin was most prone to using when he was in charge of Dublin was battle plans never survive first contact with the enemy. While the thrust of that old military adage is the need to be adaptable, it does contain within it another truism - ie, that first contact with the enemy will usually give observers some idea of what the battle plan is actually intended to be.
Against Armagh, five of the first seven times Dublin crossed halfway, they did so with a long- or medium-distance kick-pass. Against Kerry in Tralee, even though they were playing into a gale, they kicked long into the full-forward line with six of their first eight attacks. Against Mayo last Saturday it was even more pronounced - nine out of their first 11 attempts to cross the 45 were with the boot.
Between them, those 26 attacks produced nine points. After the respective opening quarter-hours, Dublin had two points on the board against Armagh, three against Kerry and four against Mayo. As each game progressed and as the play - and the weather - got more ragged, so more and more of their kicking has appeared aimless, leading to plenty of commentary around how untypical it is to see Dublin waste possession.
But for better or worse, this is the game they are trying to develop. It’s also - and this is not unimportant - the game the broad swathe of Dublin football followers more or less demanded after the 2021 championship limped to its end. Chief among the complaints about Farrell’s side last year was that it had become too robotic, too safe with the ball, too wedded to possession for possession’s sake. It had been their go-to tactic since around 2018, their default way of waiting out blanket defences and lulling the opposition into errors.
This league campaign has been a clear attempt to move away from that habit of endless circular ball movement. They did fall back into it at times on the opening night, partly because Armagh’s set-up forced them into it and partly because it was the first game of the year. But against Kerry and Mayo, the fact that it wasn’t always successful - and indeed, frequently not at all - didn’t put them off continuing to try.
In chasing the game over the last 20 minutes against Mayo, they had 11 attacks, of which seven included either long kicks into the full-forward line or point attempts from distance. Three of those seven were kicks from out the field, aimed at a cluster of players and hoping for the best - precisely the sort of ball that was liable to get a player substituted under the previous regime. The identity of the three kickers? John Small, Dean Rock and Ciarán Kilkenny.
Forget personnel issues - this is the actual transition Dublin are undergoing. New players will come and go and they will find their place or they won’t. If it was the case that Gannon, O’Dell, McGarry and the other young hopefuls were the ones losing possession through panicky kicking, blaming them for Dublin’s slow start would make sense. But on the whole, it has come from some of Farrell’s most trusted lieutenants.
Small, Rock, Fenton, Kilkenny, Howard, Scully - all six of them have taken on kick-passes or long-distance shots in the past month that wouldn’t have crossed their minds even a year ago. Howard’s first act last Saturday was to launch a free from the edge of his own D down on top of the Mayo 65, to a spot where Mayo players outnumbered Dubs by four to three. As it happened, Tom Lahiff came away with the breaking ball and immediately looked to kick it into the full-forward line, only to be intercepted by Lee Keegan.
A hundred times out of a hundred over the past decade, Howard would have turned and chipped that free back to his goalkeeper and Dublin would have started to patiently move the ball through the hands up the pitch, drawing Mayo towards them and pulling them out of shape as they did so. This was an old-style punt upfield, letting the chips fall where they may. This is new Dublin.
No real focal point
That it hasn’t worked so far can hardly be a surprise. For one thing, they’re trying to bed it in in the worst possible weather. When the Met Office is spending its days naming storms, it’s probably not the best time to be trying to ping 50-yard passes to a corner-forward’s outside shoulder. But Farrell had to start somewhere and the league is the only somewhere available for the moment.
A more acute problem is the fact that Dublin have no real focal point to their inside line just now. Costello and Aaron Byrne both got injured in the first half against Armagh and haven’t been seen since. O’Callaghan and Small haven’t played yet. For all his qualities, Rock has never been anyone’s idea of a target man up top. Dublin’s change in approach may work in the long run but you wouldn’t say they’re starting off in perfect lab conditions.
What is obvious for now is the fact that it isn’t working yet. When Dublin didn’t score a goal against Kerry, it ended a run of 19 league matches in which they had raised at least one green flag, stretching back almost four years to the 2018 league final against Galway. They’ve gone five of their last seven matches in league and championship without scoring a goal.
Anyone who watched them last year through Leinster and in the All-Ireland semi-final could see Dublin were stuck in a rut. This change in style is their attempt to get out of it. Regardless of which players they use to execute it, they have countless coaching miles to go before they can be confident it will work.
Dublin’s new faces
(Debutants ranked by minutes played in the 2022 league so far)
Lee Gannon 207
Lorcan O’Dell 119
Ross McGarry 92
Cameron McCormack 85
Darragh Conlon 71
Ciarán Archer 37
Alex Wright 5
Killian McGinnis 4
CJ Smith 2
Harry Ladd 2