Friday 20 October 2017

Four questions for Jim Gavin and Dublin ahead of All Ireland replay with Mayo

As Dublin bid for a first All-Ireland double since 1977, Jim Gavin is facing a huge test of his skills after conceding his side were lucky to get a second chance. How will he approach today's replay and what impact will it have against confident Mayo?

Dublin manager Jim Gavin and (right) Bernard Brogan in action during the drawn match
Dublin manager Jim Gavin and (right) Bernard Brogan in action during the drawn match
Dublin manager Jim Gavin will be eager for an improved showing from his player's in today's replayed final against Mayo. Picture: Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly and Ciarán Kilkenny's (pictured) dispute over who would take a line ball in the original final indicated all wasn't totally right with Dublin. Picture: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Aidan O'Shea made an astonishing statement before the drawn All-Ireland final, suggesting that the Mayo team had left its best days behind.

"If I'm being totally honest, I think the peak stage is probably gone. It doesn't take a genius to figure that out.

"Some players are coming down and then younger players are trying to bring it back up at the same time. I don't think we are in that pomp that maybe we were a few years ago," he said in an interview with this newspaper.

He wasn't the only one to surprise. For a man who chooses his words so carefully, Jim Gavin made an unusual comment too minutes after the final, reacting to a suggestion that Dublin's performance merited a six-out-of-ten rating by suggesting it was 'over-generous'.

If both O'Shea and Gavin are right, it doesn't say much for the standard of the drawn game.

Presumably, if Gavin deemed a six-out-of-ten assessment of Dublin's performance as 'over-generous', the highest he would have rated his side was five, equating to below average.

It's scarcely the glossy finish many Dublin supporters apply to descriptions of a squad they claim to be the best in the county's history.

And if Mayo aren't as good as they were two years ago, as per O'Shea's assessment, it means that the first instalment of the 2016 All-Ireland final featured a team in decline against opposition whose performance was below average.

An Garda Siochana have issued a bizarre travel warning ahead of Saturday's All-Ireland replay. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
An Garda Siochana have issued a bizarre travel warning ahead of Saturday's All-Ireland replay. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

It's a long time since that could be said of Dublin. Their only championship defeat - the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final against Donegal - in Gavin's four-year term in charge had something of a sucker-punch dimension.

Dublin played exceptionally well for the first 25 minutes and quite well in the final 20 minutes, but were undermined by a calamitous spell in between when they were outscored by 3-7 to 0-3.

Last Sunday week was different because at no stage did they build up the levels of momentum we have come to expect from them.

"After that performance, we didn't really deserve to win and we're just happy to be leaving with the opportunity to do it again. We had luck today," said Gavin.

So did Mayo, for while they disrupted Dublin like no other opposition had done all year, they were fortunate in other respects linked to the opposition's individual performances.

Many Dublin players were off their game, their touch deserting them at crucial moments. That, in turn, created systems difficulties, especially in the attacking half.

Dublin's game under Gavin is based on option maximisation so that the player in possession has a menu of choices to select from. That's what made them so effective in recent seasons but, for some reason, it wasn't there last Sunday week.

It was like watching a completely different Dublin team as the ball-carrier was often left to figure out what to do next, as opposed to having options lined up alongside and in front of him.

That was in stark contrast to the semi-final against Kerry. Even when they fell five points behind after defensive errors gifted Kerry two goals just before half-time, Dublin's processes remained sound.

And so they were able to pick their way back, point by point, outscoring Kerry by 0-13 to 0-6 in second half. The manner they executed the initial recovery, and then launched a second one after Kerry had enjoyed a good spell, was most impressive.

It pointed to a team fuelled by confidence in themselves and their systems, driven on and off the pitch by people who knew exactly what they were about.

Three weeks later, it was very different, leaving Gavin with a new challenge. And since he has always emphasised that the camp lives very much in the present, with little reference to the past, he knows that today's game is yet another defining post for him and the players.

The Questions

Was last Sunday week's performance a one-off, a day in which Dublin misfired for no obvious reason, yet still weren't beaten?

Or was it an indication of mental fatigue after four seasons when they won four Allianz Leagues, four Leinster and two All-Ireland titles?

If it's the former, it will self-correct; if it's the latter, the prognosis is more serious. Worryingly for Dublin, there's no way of knowing on either front until today's game is well under way.

Certainly, there were times in the drawn game when Dublin looked mentally flat, the give-away sign being that players were happy to offload responsibility rather than embrace it.

There were other little indicators that things weren't quite right. The sight of Diarmuid Connolly and Ciarán Kilkenny (left) involved in an apparent difference of opinion over who would take a line ball as Dublin defended a one-point lead deep in stoppage time was most unusual.

Connolly, who wanted to have a shot at goal, won out but his kick drifted wide, allowing Mayo to re-start and build towards the levelling point, which they secured.

It's highly likely that if Kilkenny had taken the line ball, he would have fed it back to a colleague, seeking to hold possession as the clock ran down.

Connolly's boldness would have been vindicated if he put Dublin two points ahead, but the percentage play in that final minute was to retain the ball, a facet of play where Dublin normally excel.

The Personnel

Ignore whatever Dublin team is announced - we won't know until around 4.50 today which 15 start. It has been great fun surmising what changes Gavin might make, especially in attack, but does it matter all that much? There's little enough between 10/11 forwards and since six changes are permitted nowadays, adjustments can be made quite quickly, if required.

Still for all Dublin's forward riches, Kilkenny's switch from attack to defence - brought about by James McCarthy's 'black card' exit - upset the front line the last day.

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Mayo’s Seamus O’Shea with Dublins Ciaran Kilkenny and Paul Flynn during the AllIreland Final

Ironically, Paddy Andrews, who replaced McCarthy, did well but Kilkenny's energy and constant probing in the opposition half was missed in the second half. He will return to that role today, presenting Mayo with a problem they did not have to contend with for much of the drawn game.

While Dublin have lots of options in attack, they are much less well-endowed defensively.

The absence of Rory O'Carroll and Jack McCaffrey was always going to be significant, but Gavin's preference for deploying Kilkenny as a half-back when the occasion demands suggests he has reservations about the quality of the defensive back-up. That can't be good for morale among those who ply their trade in that area.

There's also the issue of where best to play Connolly, who will again have Lee Keegan as his shadow.

The suggestion that locating Connolly in the traditional full-forward slot has merits from a Dublin viewpoint as it would effectively make Keegan a No 3.

There's more to full-back play than merely marking an opponent and while Keegan is adaptable, he is not a full-back. Besides, he is of more value to Mayo further out from where he can launch attacking runs.

The focus on Keegan's 'up close and personal' approach to Connolly has been repeatedly highlighted over the past two weeks, especially by former Dublin players in their various media outlets.

The implication is that Connolly deserves more protection from referees.

If that's the case, does the same not apply to those being marked by Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper? Sauce for the goose and all that.

The Psychology

Andy Moran was happy to stop off for a TV interview before leaving the pitch after the drawn game. His Mayo colleagues had pep in their step too as they left the pitch, whereas the Dublin players looked as if they had lost.

Gavin's subsequent comments left nobody in any doubt what he thought of the Dublin performance but he also pointed out that "we've been here before and we've learned from it."

He was referring to last year when Dublin beat Mayo in a semi-final replay. That doesn't mean it's going to happen again, but the good experience is a plus for Dublin.

So too is the fact that they had far more underperformers than Mayo 13 days ago.

It follows that if they raise their game to more normal levels, Mayo will be under much more pressure.

Of course, there's always the fear for Dublin that Mayo possess something others don't. They certainly have the best championship record of any county against Dublin over the past 10 years (two wins, two draws, two defeats) and are clearly not in any way fazed by a challenge that breaks so many others.

Still, while their recovery in the drawn game may appear to give them a psychological edge it's not that simple.

They drew level after scoring five unanswered points in the first 15 minutes of the second half, yet failed to press on.

And last year, they led Dublin by four points in the semi-final replay, only to implode and lose by seven. Why didn't they see either job through?

The Expectations

Dublin have been favourites to win this year's All-Ireland for the last 12 months, a rating that has to have an impact on the players.

They live in an environment where the possibility of not completing a two-in-a-row wasn't even considered until Mayo launched their second-half offensive in the drawn game.

Gavin will have done his best to separate the hype from the reality, but it can't have been easy.

The scare 13 days ago will have helped to focus minds but the fact remains that all of Dublin expects a first two-in-a-row since 1977.

The difficulty rating for that target is underlined by the fact that only Kerry (2006-2007) have won the double in the past 25 years.

Irish Independent

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