Wednesday 18 October 2017

How to beat Dublin - or, at the very least, make them work for victory

Dublin’s Bernard Brogan, on his first start of the year, tries to escape the clutches of Conor Devaney on Saturday night. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Bernard Brogan, on his first start of the year, tries to escape the clutches of Conor Devaney on Saturday night. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When the Allianz Football League fixtures for Division One emerged last September Dublin, immersed in preparations for their All-Ireland final with Mayo, wouldn't have paid much attention to them.

Why should they have done? With back-to-back All-Ireland titles on the line, a competition that wasn't due to start for another five months can hardly have been of too much interest to them.

By then they were already 27 games unbeaten in league or championship. Kerry's historic record of 34 wins across the same two competitions was barely public knowledge.

But the way the fixtures were mapped out for Dublin, with games against their four main rivals, in sequence between the second and fifth rounds, the expectation was that somewhere, somehow a team feasting on a second successive All-Ireland title and the last four league titles would leave a window sufficiently ajar to allow some of their pursuers to exploit it.

Tyrone in Croke Park where they have beaten and drawn with Jim Gavin-managed Dublin teams in previous years, Donegal in Ballybofey where they hadn't lost in 15 previous league or championship games, Mayo in Croke Park where they have twice drawn in big championship games and Kerry in Tralee, where the record was on the line and the home side have developed a habit of ratcheting up the physical stakes for whatever visitors arrive - surely one of that quartet would take them down?

Their successful negotiation of 'sniper alley' over those four weekends has revised that body of opinion, Saturday night's destruction of Roscommon has only served to harden the conviction that this Dublin squad may just go through another season unbeaten.

But while they are unbeaten they have looked beatable in snatches over the last few weeks and of course in their last three games of last year's championship.

Tyrone, Kerry and even Donegal have shown chinks of light, just as Mayo had done so in both All-Ireland finals.

Kerry brought physicality and niggle to Tralee, just as Mayo did, and worked hard on scrambling Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs which worked with seven of the first 13 turned over.

Memorably in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Kerry pressed up on the Dublin restart only when they were awarded their first free within range, on the basis that it allowed them sufficient time to take up the right positions for the 'press'. It didn't work in that instance but it did for the first of the two goals that turned the match on its head, until Dublin's impressive late surge.

But while targeting the kick-out has worked, it leaves gaps behind that Dublin can exploit.

And that's why Tyrone's current template of 'contain and counter' still looks the best option to frustrate Dublin, locking down every attacking corridor and playing that long, patient game that they have become so effective at as they protect their 'D' zealously and break furiously.

Their record in league games over the last four years against the champions reflects that.

Donegal's Ryan McHugh's 80-metre sprint in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final to bat home a goal after Cian O'Sullivan had kicked possession away was a snapshot into how only a lightning counter works against the champions.

But Dublin have got better at dealing with this kind of challenge, as the record of a team for all seasons shows. They have adapted to the patience required for a recycling game required to break down such a defence.

There was no shortage of thought that Dublin simply couldn't afford to pursue a fifth league title without some consequence for their players further down the line, that somehow winning was bad for long-term business.

But there is a sense that so many players have their foot to the floor in anticipation of the level of competition for places.

After winning four successive All-Stars Paul Flynn has been less influential for Dublin over the last two seasons, perhaps squeezed by the development of Ciaran Kilkenny as the fulcrum of the attack. But Flynn was teeming with intent on Saturday night, just as he had been in Tralee seven days earlier when he gave a solution to Dublin's kick-out crux.

Similarly, there was something in the manner in which Bernard Brogan, also back for his first start, challenged the uncertainty of the umpires as they considered his early point attempt on Saturday.

Brogan's protest was justified, Hawk-Eye agreed with him. This was one a player whose point account goes into the hundreds at this stage, who really wanted it to stand.

With Con O'Callaghan lurking, on top of the usual coterie of potential breakthrough forwards, Brogan knows he can't miss a step.

From this position, Dublin should win a fifth successive league title, while a seventh successive Leinster title is a formality. That takes them to August where opponents must decide to twist or stick on their approach to the Dublin kick-out or to bed down deep and counter quickly.

They'll have to get their timing right. And be lucky.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport