Friday 9 December 2016

Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn have never been under so much pressure to perform

Published 24/09/2016 | 02:30

Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan celebrate last year’s All-Ireland final victory over Kerry – however both struggled to find their best form against Mayo in the drawn final last Sunday Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan celebrate last year’s All-Ireland final victory over Kerry – however both struggled to find their best form against Mayo in the drawn final last Sunday Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

More than once since last Sunday's drawn All-Ireland final the question has been asked, in relation to Jim Gavin and his management team.

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"If it was Brian Cody, what would he do?"

Cody's remarkable ability to get really big calls right between drawn All-Ireland finals and a semi-final has been more apparent towards the latter end of his time in charge.

His springing of debutant Walter Walsh for the 2012 final replay with Galway was his most radical and, arguably, most successful though, you suspect, he will have got more satisfaction from the recall of Kieran Joyce for the 2014 replay with Tipperary, given how that decision had been openly questioned in the county when it was revealed.

This year's parachuting of Liam Blanchfield into the starting 15 for the Waterford replay was another example. Consistently, the changes have worked.

For a manager who espouses an expansive playing style, Jim Gavin has taken quite conservative lines to team selection.

Look back over his tenure and the only leftfield selection was arguably Cormac Costello for Kevin McManamon in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final with Donegal - Gavin's only championship defeat. Even then Costello had been first substitute on in the previous game, so it wasn't a complete bolt from the blue.

Since that game there has been a real order to selection matters with the 13 championship team-sheets that Gavin has filled in.

Cover

Change has routinely come on the back of injury. When Davy Byrne, John Small and Darren Daly all started the 2015 Leinster quarter-final against Longford, it was as cover for the injured Rory O'Carroll, James McCarthy and Cian O'Sullivan.

Small kept his place for the semi-final with Kildare as McCarthy sat that out too but once the Ballymun man was available for the Leinster final, the team played out along expected lines over the next five games, the only decisions focusing on whether McManamon started ahead of Paddy Andrews or Denis Bastick was preferred to Michael Darragh Macauley.

Essentially the starting Dublin team was the preserve of just 17 players.

This year, excluding injuries to Paul Flynn for the Laois game, when Paul Mannion stepped in, and McCarthy for Westmeath and Donegal, when Eric Lowndes and Andrews deputised, that spread is even thinner.

McManamon has moved ahead of Andrews, while Macauley has cemented his place ahead of Bastick. With O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey out of the picture, Byrne and Small have stepped up impressively. No-one else has come close to claiming those opportunities ahead of them.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Changes in personnel haven't been necessary because, let's face it, they haven't been required. Winning teams are very difficult to change.

But a draw offers a challenge, especially a game as bizarre as last Sunday that thrashed just about every pre-conceived notion about it.

Mayo would need at least two goals? They didn't get any. Dublin would overwhelm them down the final stretch? It was Mayo who picked off the last three points of the game.

But perhaps the biggest anomaly was the subdued nature of the Dublin attack. They registered just 11 scores, two of them own-goals, the lowest return on Gavin's watch.

Only two of the starting six forwards scored from play, and while the greasy pitch was a factor, the conditions were the same for Mayo - and much the same conditions as they experienced in last year's All-Ireland final that they controlled against Kerry.

The focus has fallen on Bernard Brogan and Flynn in particular ahead of next weekend's replay and whether they have run out of road, with the potential impact of Andrews, Mannion and Eoghan O'Gara behind them. O'Gara's strength, in Ger Cafferkey's absence, is a most interesting one.

Brogan was withdrawn for the fourth time in six championship games, making way for O'Gara in the 63rd minute. The explosive form that saw him shortlisted for Footballer of the Year in 2015 has been missing for much of the season.

On Sunday he worked hard across his line and most of the ball that came his way he won and laid off. But he didn't really threaten, even if he provided the last Dublin touch in the build-up to Kevin McLoughlin's own-goal. He only got two shots off, neither of which were near the target.

His game hasn't been helped by Dublin's much more patient approach this year, where the emphasis is on holding up possession and switching points of attack, largely through Ciaran Kilkenny.

Brogan has generally thrived in a faster-paced game and when there's a touch of pandemonium in opponents' last line of defence; these are conditions that Dublin just haven't been generating as often.

That said, he scored two points and won frees for two more in the semi-final against Kerry, which won't be lost on Gavin (pictured) this week. He has played through lapses in form before. In 2013 he was replaced in all three Leinster championship games but finished with sufficiently strong performances against Kerry and Mayo to win an All-Star.

Flynn's influence has been being ebbing slowly since 2014 but earlier this year, in an Irish Independent interview he wondered about that perception of his game.

"Last year (2015) I scored 2-6 and that's supposed to be a bad year," he said. "It's (scores) not ideally what I measure my game on either; I've got KPIs around tackles, kickouts won, breaking ball and all those aspects, complete passes.

"When I piece it all together and when I look back over my own game evaluation, there is no doubt that 2015, for me, wasn't as good as 2014, but it was better than 2011."

This year Flynn's scoring return has dropped to just three points from five games and as Kilkenny grows into his 'point guard' role, through which so much ball is played, Flynn just hasn't nearly been as prominent.

Whatever he did last Sunday he did well but his interventions were infrequent. Like Brogan his work-rate remains strong and he still finds good positions around the field. A nagging groin injury is understood to have flared up prior to the Kerry game too.

But for Flynn to make way would require a reshuffle. O'Gara and Mannion are better options inside and couldn't do that auxiliary midfield role to the same effect as Flynn.

Neither would McManamon, who may be the forward under most threat from Andrews.

Vulnerable

He was first off (after McCarthy) on Sunday and despite his strongest season yet, his potential and proven impact off the bench makes him most vulnerable.

The psychology around omitting Brogan and Flynn at this stage of the season must also be weighed up. What message would it send to Mayo if two of the chief architects of this glorious period were to be left out for the first time since their careers took full flight?

Gavin hasn't been prone to rash decisions with team selection up to now but then he hasn't had a championship performance in the same season to dissect like it before.

Still, the flicker of form that both Brogan and Flynn have had will be trusted to become a blaze next week. Their credit line is simply too strong and goes back too far for anything else.

Irish Independent

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