There's always a story hiding in plain sight. We just usually talk about a different one. Kevin McManamon's hit on Peter Crowley at the end of the Kerry game bubbled up in every post-match debrief and deliberation. Surely a foul. Scandalous by the ref. Yadda for yadda till the sun came up.
Here’s the thing, though. Look where the hit took place: right on the Dublin 45. Look when it took place: in the 73rd minute. History tells us that of all the gin joints in all the world, that was a deeply unusual one for McManamon to be walking into at that moment. Leaving aside that Crowley wasn’t his man, the very fact that he was still on the pitch tells a tale.
McManamon made his championship debut for Dublin against Wexford in 2010. This was his 37th championship game in seven seasons. For 30 of those 37 games, he either started on the bench or was subbed off before the end. This game was his first time ever to play a full 70 minutes outside of the Leinster Championship.
Across those seven seasons, he watched no fewer than 11 other Dublin forwards play a full 70 in games during the All-Ireland series. In the early days, it was Barry Cahill, Alan Brogan and Bryan Cullen who were keeping him at bay. Michael Darragh Macauley was in the forwards then, Eoghan O'Gara was in favour. As time passed, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan were immovable. Soon, Ciarán Kilkenny was too. Dean Rock and Paddy Andrews started and finished games before McManamon managed it.
Talk about giving a dog a name. McManamon became a well-worn trope. Always there, always a contributor but always an add-on. Doing more in bits of games than other forwards did in whole ones. He was nominated for an All Star in 2011 despite only starting once all summer.
That can happen in an All-Ireland year when the champions tend to be showered with gifts but he made the shortlist in 2014 too when Dublin crashed out in the semi-final and only three of their forwards got the nod. Can anyone else think of a double All Star-nominated substitute? Answers on a postcard, please.
He was named to start that game against Donegal in 2014 but – and this has not been unusual under Jim Gavin – he was the dummy on the dummy team, and Cormac Costello went in from the start. Same against Fermanagh in 2015 when Andrews was announced over the PA 10 minutes before throw-in. Before last year's final, selector Declan Darcy conceded that his facility for affecting games off the bench had counted against him when it came to digging out starts.
“Yeah, I think so,” he says. “Obviously, if you have been running around after some of the Dublin forwards and then you see him coming on for the last 20 minutes, you will be thinking, ‘Ah, Jaysus’. Croke Park is not the place that you want to see Kevin McManamon coming to you. There is a bit of that.
“But at the same time, I think Kevin could do as much damage in the first 15 minutes of the game as the final 15 minutes. Some of the moments he has done will be iconic moments. As a footballer, he will be well-remembered.”
There comes a time, though. McManamon is 29. He runs his own business. He has three college degrees: in business, management and sports psychology. All the fine words and all the team-playing in the world do not allow someone like that to be happy just chipping in.
Tomorrow, assuming he doesn’t get the rug pulled out from under him before throw-in, he will make his first start in an All-Ireland final. This is the first summer in which he has started every game. Of the seven games he has started and finished in his career, three have come in this championship. This is his year.
What changed? Work-rate, mostly. Gavin has never given much of a hint as to why any of his forwards gets a place ahead of anyone else but there was always a suspicion McManamon lost out to guys with longer-running engines. The very quality that makes him difficult to mark – that spectral ability to pop up full of running off a shoulder in space – could also make him hard to rely on.
Go back to his goal against Kerry in the 2013 semi-final. Picture it in your mind: a kick-out dropping in midfield, Macauley jumping for it with Marc Ó Sé and David Moran, the clock turning 69:00 and the game level. At a vital juncture, Kerry have a two-on-one under a kick-out for the simple reason that McManamon has let his man, Ó Sé, go and attack the ball. He's standing 10 yards away from the action, too far to even go in and contest the break.
The rest is history, as they say. Ó Sé calls, Moran ignores him and sticks up a hand, the ball breaks. Macauley does his superhuman routine by getting a claw to the bouncing ball and flicking it into space and suddenly McManamon is away in an acre. Solo-hop-solo, jink on to the left, ball in the top corner whether he meant it or not. Good night and God bless.
McManamon didn’t start the final though. How could he? With the game right in the balance, he had hung back and left Macauley to contest a kick-out on his own and to win the break on his own. Gavin trusts process above results, always. Foul or no foul on Crowley three weeks ago, the fact that McManamon was there to make the tackle at all tells you he has come to trust it too.
Tom Cribbin has sent his Westmeath team out to play Dublin in successive Leinster finals. He has hatched plans, done reviews and knows better than anyone the level you need to get to contain them. McManamon scored 1-2 against his side this time around and what stuck out for Cribbin when they reviewed it was the sheer amount of ground he covered in the game.
“I’d love to see his GPS results,” says Cribbin. “I’d say they’re as high as any midfielder in any game. He covers incredible ground and he does it nearly all within the 45, definitely within the 65. That means he’s doing it all in the danger area. So if you take your eye off him for a minute, he’s going to do damage.
“We got a bit of a shock after the Leinster final when we found that my corner back had to run 10.5km to try and stay with him. That’s the type of distance the Dublin forwards are covering in a game. Kevin in that Kerry game, I would estimate that he was up around 11.25km, 11.5km. At the very top level, you would get a handful of players each day covering that sort of ground. But only the top four or five teams in the country get that kind of return. Dublin have all their forwards doing it. Kevin finished that game so strong, he had to have covered somewhere in that region.
“They make the pitch so wide and they keep running all the time. They have no problem making runs that don’t get the ball. What they’re doing is making you go with them and wearing you out. The usual thing for a defender playing in the full back line doing a man-marking job would be to run 7km-7.5km during a game. But when you’re playing Dublin, you have to cover over 10.5km a game just to stay with them. That’s a massive difference, just in distance covered.
“But what makes it even harder is the amount of that extra distance that would be covered in sprint mode. We’ve looked back at GPS stats from games against other teams and the average for distance run in sprint mode is around 2km-2.1km. Against Dublin, it’s over 3km. So you’re talking about an extra kilometre of sprints in a game. That’s what you’re faced with when you come up against someone like Kevin McManamon. It’s not just talent, it’s not just skill. It’s unbelievable work-rate.”
This is the thing. McManamon was always a danger with the ball. Like most of the Dublin forwards, he is comfortable shooting from reasonable distance with both feet. What he has that others don’t is an instinct to run at defenders with ball in hand and a directness that can be irresistible at times. For Cribbin, there’s only one way to combat it.
“You have to be tight enough to him before he gets the run at you. Because he’s so powerful and jinky that if he gets the run at you, it’s very hard to stop him without fouling him. If you’re with him before he gets the ball, it’s a lot easier to try and keep the pressure on him while he’s trying to control the ball,” he says.
“That’s the crucial point because all you’re doing at that stage is trying to get a hand on the ball to knock it away whereas he has to try and collect it and turn and solo and make sure he doesn’t over-carry. So if you’re tight to him, you have three or four chances in a small space of time to get a hand in. He’s trying to do three or four things while you’re only looking to do one. But if you stand off him and let him turn, he has the advantage.”
Who Mayo send to deal with him will be one of the more interesting subplots from the off tomorrow. Keith Higgins? Lee Kegeen? Colm Boyle? In other years, they only had to plan for him at the end. It’s different now. He’s different.
Hiding in plain sight no more.