McGill: Dubs can deliver
MANAGERS putting their hands up and admitting that they screwed up -- especially regarding substitutions -- has become a marked and welcome GAA feature this summer.
To the list that already includes Kieran McGeeney and James McCartan you can add Donegal man Gerry McGill, who leads Dublin into a second consecutive TG4 All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football final tomorrow.
With eight minutes left in last year's final, and his team leading the previously infallible Cork by two points, McGill turned to one of his selectors on the line and said "Tommy (Brown), one more point and we have it!"
Only they didn't. The Rebelettes scored four points in as many minutes, played 'keep-ball' with 29 consecutive passes in the final 93 seconds and pipped them by a point to win their fifth All-Ireland in a row.
And the part that Cork substitute Mairead Kelly played in their comeback -- scoring one point and setting up another -- left McGill seriously examining his own conscience.
It wasn't that he had picked the wrong replacements but that some of them simply weren't experienced enough to step into the white-hot intensity of an All-Ireland final.
"We hadn't tested our bench enough going into such a tight game, I'll hold my hand up to that," McGill admits.
"Last year, we had decided we wanted to get a settled team through the National League and we'd only played 19 players in the championship.
"This year, we've already played 25 and we were talking last weekend about the six players we haven't used yet and agreed we'd be happy to play any of them tomorrow."
It was a lesson that didn't only prove costly last September. Dublin sacrificed any hope of a league title this season to experiment, which explains why they were relegated from Division 1 yet find themselves back in their fourth All-Ireland final since 2003, still chasing that elusive first Brendan Martin Cup.
Their last league game, against Laois, underlines how costly their experimentation was.
"We were winning by five points with five minutes to go, but Laois scored two goals," McGill recalls. "They went through to the semi-finals and we got relegated."
Yet this summer Dublin beat Laois in both the Leinster final and the All-Ireland semi-finals, though they needed to come back from three points down in the final quarter to win the latter.
The fact that the Jackies are back in Croker speaks volumes for their character, because many of them, including McGill, seriously contemplated quitting after last year's heartbreak.
It wasn't just that they'd come closer than anyone else to beating Cork in a final. Many of Dublin's players had already lost back-to-back finals to Mayo and Galway in 2003-04 so a third final loss was unbearable.
"It took a long time to get over it, the full league campaign really, to realise where we were. There was a lot of soul-searching," the inner-city schoolteacher admits.
"But the girls showed huge character to come back and showed massive loyalty to me and the management team and we felt it was only appropriate to reciprocate that loyalty."
And he reckons they weren't the only ones to learn valuable lessons from last year's final.
"An awful lot of other teams in the country learned just as much," says McGill, an observation reflected in the fact that Cork were eventually toppled off their pedestal by Tyrone in this year's quarter-finals.
"People were looking at it and thinking 'Jesus, Dublin are after putting Cork to the pin of their collar. We're not that far off Dublin, so surely if we step it up a gear we can push that bit further?'"
And McGill believes the closeness of this year's championship has reflected just how even the women's game has become.
"There was no real hidings, the only provincial winners that survived were ourselves and we were quite lucky to beat Clare.
"Kerry lost to Cork in Munster and bounced back with those two big semi-final games against Tyrone, who themselves came back from losing in Ulster. The gap has definitely narrowed.
"And Cork also played a different county in each of the last five finals," he points out."
Tyrone may be first-time finalists but, apart from dethroning Cork, they've racked up some massive scores and play an all-action game similar to their male counterparts.
"They don't have a weak link anywhere," McGill says, though he understandably singles out their attack.
"Four of the Tyrone forwards are in the top seven scorers in the championship.
"Players like Gemma Begley and Joline Donnelly got the bulk of their scores in the replay with Kerry, but they're not reliant on those two forwards so our backs are going to have to be really on their toes."
A four-week break since beating Laois has handed him the additional challenge of guarding his players mentally against the expectation that they will finally get their just rewards, just as Cork's men did last week.
"You'll hear all the cliches, like 'you have to lose a final to win one', but sure Cork lost several before that happened," McGill notes.
"People will say 'Dublin deserve this' but Tyrone deserve it just as much as we do, you've got to earn it on the day and we're fully aware of that."
"Opportunities like this only come round now and again, there's no guarantee that either ourselves or Tyrone will get here again and some of our players know they are never going to get this opportunity again."