Christy O'Connor: Season of redemption driven by Dublin's long winter of discontent
Tactical rethink sparked by 2014 Donegal defeat gave Dubs aura of invincibility
Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30
At the end of the 2014 season, the opportunity to travel to Australia for ten days was presented to the Dublin football squad. It was briefly explored before being knocked back for logistical reasons.
In the end, around 70pc of the squad went to London for two nights in early December, taking in a Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge. Winning another League and Leinster title entitled them to a longer break but some of the players felt that two days mirrored what they deserved.
Jim Gavin and a lot of Dublin players put down a hard winter. Dublin appeared indestructible throughout 2014 but when Donegal punctured such a deep hole in their aura, other teams could finally see through it. Repairing that damage and restoring confidence was the only starting point for Gavin and his players.
"Chatting to some of the players, you definitely got the sense that the Donegal game hit them very hard," said former Dublin player Barry Cahill in April. "It was just a total shock. It took some of them three or four months to get over it. For some players, I'd say it might still be in their system."
The toxins lingered during the spring but the rehabilitation process had still begun a couple of weeks after the Donegal defeat.
In September 2014, Gavin held his hands up. He wanted to come clean and admit to the footballing world what everyone else already knew: a lack of balance between attacking and defensive football cost Dublin against Donegal. There. Gavin said it. It was out in the open, like the first stage of a healing process.
Gavin was adamant that Dublin wouldn't stray too far from their attacking philosophy but he still accepted that an over-eager devotion to that belief system allowed Donegal to exploit it.
"On a personal level, I accept full responsibility for the philosophy, for the attacking style we play and sometimes for the vulnerability that it brings and the unpredictability of it," said Gavin. "One result won't change Dublin's core philosophy but it's been a learning experience."
That process began during the spring. Dublin were experimenting with different styles but they were more defensively minded. In four of their first six League matches, Dublin only registered scores of 1-9, 1-10, 2-10 and 0-8. After struggling against Tyrone's ultra-defensive set-up, they had even more difficulties against Derry in what looked like the game from the apocalypse.
Nailing Monaghan for 1-22 in Round 7 suggested Dublin were finally beginning to balance the equation. After blitzing Cork in the League final, Dublin looked to have finally cracked the code. Entering the Championship with the best defensive record in the League further underlined how Dublin had developed their overall structure, and combined it with greater tactical fluidity and adaptability.
A reviewed attacking style was also critical to finding that right balance, and in trying to break down a massed defence. Jason Sherlock was added to their backroom team as a forwards coach. Mark Ingle, a basketball coach, was also brought in for a few sessions. Sherlock has a huge basketball background and his influence was obvious.
Dublin clearly worked hard on outside shooting, setting screens for players on the ball to shoot, for creating the opening for a free player to get off a shot amongst a mass of bodies. As a player, one of Sherlock's greatest qualities was his movement and ability to find space, which in turn created space for others.
Over the summer, Dublin's forwards, especially the corner-forwards, played far wider, and worked defenders much harder. It created more space, especially down the central channel, but that criss-cross running also facilitated opportunities to create more screens for the outside shooters.
Dublin needed to become more unpredictable. In June 2014, Jim McGuinness spoke about systems in team sports, ranging from Dublin to Kerry to Barcelona.
"I firmly believe that the top, top teams are so good at what they do that they actually give other teams an opportunity to beat them," said McGuinness. "They are so good at what they do, their patterns become clear."
It was a prescient observation that McGuinness proved a couple of months later. Donegal knew exactly what Dublin were going to do and they exploited it. That was one of the key test of the Dubs last year: trying to remain unpredictable, while still retaining their attacking identity, and most natural instincts.
Despite their attacking brilliance, the Donegal experience forced Dublin into looking harder at themselves. "Every game we play we learn," said Dublin selector Declan Darcy before the All-Ireland final.
"We learned harshly last year (2014). Yeah, it was tough. It was tough as a management group, and it was tough as a group in general. But I don't think it was a case of we felt that we. . . just, things didn't go the way that we had planned them to go. Donegal did very well, and I think their hunger and desire outdid ours.
"You could say tactics yes, for sure, could have played a part in it but at the same time, you couldn't deny the appetite of some of their players. But it was a harsh lesson. We have learned. We're three years here now, so we've lost one game, one important game."
The manner of that defeat hardened their resolve but it also forced Dublin to demand more from their collective talent. They also had to become more measured and controlled and streetwise, especially when dealing with massed defences.
In the Leinster final against Westmeath, they were clearly road-testing a more deliberate way of playing against a massed defence. A gung-ho approach was replaced with a more patient one. Diarmuid Connolly in particular spent a lot of the summer lasering 40-yard crossfield passes to change the angle of attack, looking to shift the defence across and create mismatches.
Becoming more measured, more patient, didn't unload bullets from their gun chamber. The gun was still always cocked. They were still itching to always pull the trigger. They just had to review their battle strategies from the army which mowed down all before them in 2013, and in most of 2014.
And the sharp corrective administered by Donegal was a key part in that process.
"We won't know until Sunday but maybe it was the best thing that happened to us," said Darcy before the Kerry game. "It took the whole anticipation and expectation out of the team."
The most obvious example of the new Dublin came late on in the Mayo replay. Dublin rarely dropped down the gears from top speed because they didn't have the patience or the inclination but when they got ahead with ten minutes to go, they gave an exhibition in cruise control.
There were three sequences of play when they strung the guts of 70 passes together over more than three minutes to suck the life out of the game and drain the energy from Mayo.
The All-Ireland final provided further proof of how rounded Dublin had become this season. After such a high free concession rate against Mayo, Dublin limited Kerry to just one score from a free. They could have had a bag of goals. They only won by three points but they were by far the better team.
The 2015 season also confirmed Dublin's status of the greatest League team of the last 40 years. They won the last two finals by an aggregate margin of 26 points.
Young Dublin players also really matured, which was really evident in the All-Ireland final. Ciarán Kilkenny made more plays (35) than anyone else and should have been shortlisted for man of the match. Brian Fenton deservedly won the award when making 22 plays but he was just continuing a rich vein of form. In his last three games of the Championship, Fenton made a combined 74 plays.
For Dublin, beating Kerry always sweetens the taste. Being the first Dublin team to beat Kerry three times in a row further enhances their status. Internally, though, this win was satisfying for other reasons.
In 2011, Kerry effectively blew the match. Poor refereeing calls were a factor in Kerry's defeat. In 2013, Kevin McManamon's late goal put a false complexion on the final score of a game Kerry could have won. In September, though, there were absolutely no doubts.
And the sensation was even sweeter still because it finally rinsed the Donegal defeat from Dublin's system.