Dublin firing first shots of a revolution
All-Ireland champions have best ammunition but new black card rules may allow other counties to join shoot-out, writes Christy O'Connor
Two weeks ago, Laois footballer Colm Begley cleared his throat. Something had been lodged in his chest. He had gagged on the thought of how it made him feel before it stuck in his gullet. Eventually, Begley coughed it up and spat it out.
He couldn't stomach Laois' style of football any longer. They averaged 2-15 in their three previous games but their fourth-round qualifier against Donegal last July was a far more vivid example of Laois' ultra-defensive philosophy, which governed most of their football under Justin McNulty.
It was a gruesome affair. A dogged, rugged, defensive and hard-hitting match. Begley said it was "a horrible game to play in". He is sure that "it was a horrible game to watch too". It was.
"Players need to enjoy playing football and I didn't enjoy playing that style of football a lot of times," said Begley. "Then you see Mayo and Dublin playing free-flowing football and you say, 'Look, we are going to try and do that'. Yes, you do what you have to do to win but obviously if you are enjoying yourself a bit more and feel you can express yourself a bit more, you will naturally play a bit better."
McNulty could rightly argue that doing "what you have to do to win" transported Laois to within a score of Dublin in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final and to within two scores of Donegal this summer. Yet one of the great conundrums in the modern game is striking a balance between results and the style of football that achieves those results.
Winning is the bottom line. That's the law of the jungle. Certain teams have become as cynical and ruthless as the opposition seeking to stop them. They don't care what other people think of them, they are just trying to survive in the jungle. For too long, that has remained the crux at the heart of football. Why should teams abandon cynicism when it was such an aid to winning?
Despite the criticism from some managers, the new rules relating to the black card to be introduced next year will be central in altering the current culture, in how much cynicism can still actually prevail. While the black card will definitely clean up the game, in the long term it won't necessarily rule out cynical play late on when teams are trying to close out a game.
Cynicism is so endemic that it will take a while to root it out but a more positive culture was initiated this year, primarily through Dublin and Mayo.
The All-Ireland champions often dictate what is fashionable and Dublin were viewed as vanguards of a potential revolution. When they won an All-Ireland in 2011, Dublin radically altered the culture of their footballing style with a more defensive game.
Donegal won an All-Ireland last year with a similar defensive template but Dublin radically re-altered the trend this year with a far more attacking and adventurous game.
Their mindset had switched from ultra-defensive to a more expansive attacking game in the middle third in 2012 but they were far more creative and attacking in that sector in 2013. In their six championship matches, Dublin created an astonishing 54 goalscoring opportunities. If you pare down those stats to clearcut chances and shots, the figure sits at an impressive 41.
The new rules will foster the potential for teams to play more of a purist game like Dublin but managers can really only implement a set style if they have the players to carry it out. Expecting to see a more universal attacking ethos is fanciful because there will always be a strategic role for sweepers and forwards working as defenders.
"I don't know if it (Dublin's style this season -- allied to the new rules) will spark a total revolution," says Kildare's Emmet Bolton. "It will open the game up a small bit more but I don't think you're going to see everyone playing real open football.
"Teams are able to counteract defensive systems now by moving the ball at such pace but the new rules will force teams to reinvent the tackling in certain ways. Still, teams are still going to have to get up to the level set by Dublin, Mayo and Kerry if they want to compete."
Committing so many players forward did leave gaps in their defence but having so much pace in the middle eight enabled Dublin to get back and protect the full-back line. Dublin were also ruthless and cut-throat when they had to be. They are able to control so much possession through Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs. They also had such lethal scoring back-up that 18pc of their scores this season came from their bench.
Having so many attacking options allowed them to throw off the shackles. That style was governed by Jim Gavin's philosophy. He wanted his players to stay truthful to the traditions of Dublin football but he also wanted them to always express themselves.
"Dublin feel they have defenders good enough to play forwards man-for-man, which they have," says former Donegal coach Rory Gallagher. "They clearly don't want to take a forward back which would allow the opposition to put an extra defender in front of Bernard Brogan or whoever. They just feel they can win a shoot-out every single day. It showed an outrageous level of belief from Jim Gavin."
Their team is loaded with shooters but their rich amalgam of talent largely conceals an unrelenting work ethic. Gallagher saw it up close in Donegal's last league game. Dublin had already qualified for the semi-finals. Donegal needed to win to avoid relegation. Donegal led by four points entering the final quarter but Dublin drew the match and sent Donegal down.
"It appeared that our full-forward line was wreaking havoc but Dublin never changed a thing," says Gallagher. "If anything, their work rate just upped and they ground us down. In your gut, you felt that they could come asunder because they were so open. You felt that they were going to concede goals in the summer but they never really did."
Similar to Bolton, Gallagher doesn't see every team being able to adopt that attitude. "A lot of teams would feel that they could do the same as Dublin if they had their forwards but they don't," he says. "There definitely has been an evolution away from serious defensiveness but I wouldn't get carried away with it either. When we (Donegal) played Down and Laois this year, they both had two sweepers against us. Not that many teams can adopt Dublin's attitude."
The Kildare management and players made a collective decision to go man-for-man against Dublin in June and they were torn to shreds, coughing up an astonishing 20 goal chances. Teams have to hold on to the ball against Dublin but Kildare crucified themselves by kicking possession away 44 times.
"You can't get caught in possession because Dublin are lethal on the counter-attack," says Bolton. "Dublin have a very strong middle eight and that is where the majority of ball is lost. They were the hardest hitting team we played all year in around the middle eight. You have to change your tactics and man-mark their top players. You are obviously not going to enjoy certain game plans but that is what is required to win the game."
Whether they like it or not, some teams are left with no other choice. Galway went toe-to-toe with Mayo and were annihilated. They had to make a serious readjustment to their style and they did. A new path took them to a Round 4 qualifier, which they narrowly lost to Cork.
"We were probably slower adjusting than most and maybe paid a price to a certain degree for being as slow as we were," says Galway's Michael Meehan. "We had to copy what other successful teams were doing, which involved a lot more focus on defence.
"If the rules are applied now in the way they are set out, that should eliminate a lot of that (need to change your philosophy). It could be the team which is quickest to embrace the new system which will steal a march on everyone else."
Meehan is a brilliant player but much of his career was blighted by serious injury. Galway's poor recent record also concealed his class and profile but he was the type of player that the modern game too often sought to suppress.
"You can argue that football had become a disaster for a forward, that you are not allowed to score and play," says Meehan. "But you kinda have to acknowledge that it was within the rules and teams were doing their best with what they had.
"As well as being injured so often, we were underperforming and that was as much a reason as the blanket defence for me not enjoying football. Another team which overachieved might say they were happy to play that type of football. It did take the good out of it for me a little bit but you just have to accept it.
"You just hope the game is changing now anyway. You do have to admire and look forward to what they are trying to achieve with the new rules. I'm not sure they will all work but I hope they do. If they don't, I would hope that they will be open to continuously tweaking and coming up with a system that will work long term."
Apart from Dublin, there were signs that the game had already begun to change this season. Armagh went gung-ho against Cavan but were slaughtered for it. Tyrone certainly became more offensive. The Mayo defence bagged 2-19 from play in six games. Overall, there were more goals scored this season (121) than there had been since the 2010 season when there were 123 scored.
The Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland semi-final produced six goals and was a game for the ages. That day, Kerry abandoned the blanket defence they had been working on all year. Kerry could afford to engage Dublin in a shoot-out. But how many teams really can?
Along with the impending new rules, the hope for now is that Dublin have still fired the first shots of the revolution. And that enough teams are prepared to join the charge with them.