'I don't think there is any player in the history of the GAA has had the bombshell impact that he has had'
Kevin McManamon has hit his 'big bullseye' by becoming an integral part of Jim Gavin's attacking plans - and no longer merely an emergency option
Published 16/09/2016 | 02:30
When Dublin won their third All-Ireland U-21 title in five years in May 2014, they had a full-forward line that the vast majority of other inter-county senior teams would have craved.
Between them Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello and Conor McHugh scored 1-18 (0-8 from frees) of the 1-21 total put up against Roscommon. By any projection this was the future for Dublin. And, quite possibly, it still is.
But for now the progression of this triumvirate has been staggered. McHugh, scorer of 1-5 that day, isn't mapped, while Costello has fallen down the pecking order after a spring campaign when he threatened at times to come on strong. Only Mannion has stayed with it, a year spent in China in the meantime stalling his advance somewhat.
The context of this is Kevin McManamon's rise to establish himself this year and how he has thrived in the most congested environment any inter-county footballer could face, populated with such quality.
He has finally made a sustainable breakthrough into the Dublin attack, virtually untouchable now even among some of the best forwards of the modern era.
On Sunday he will start an All-Ireland final for the first time, having been a substitute on three previous occasions.
For the perennial 'supersub' it is the "big bullseye" he referenced in January when he spoke candidly in advance of the Allianz League about the path he felt his career had to take.
Year after year, since his introduction to the squad by then manager Pat Gilroy in late 2009, every interview with McManamon has followed a familiar theme, underlining his conviction to shed the stereotype of impact player who burned tiring opponents with his bustling runs and energy as the clock ran down.
But last winter that conviction had firm actions ahead to back up the words.
"I need to find a different avenue this year of how to get something out of myself because trying to deliver a little more in the last two or three months of the year is something I would be looking to do," he said.
There were conversations with manager Jim Gavin to that effect too and, having undergone shoulder surgery the previous November, it was decided to shelve the O'Byrne Cup campaign and the first part of the league to allow for recovery first of all but also to pitch for a better-timed peak.
For McMcManamon that was a big decision, given his propensity to feature so regularly in Leinster's pre-season competition. In 13 games Dublin played between 2013 and 2015 McManamon started nine.
His league appearance percentage was equally high. Prior to this year Dublin had played 49 league games between 2010 and 2015, and McManamon had started 39, appearing off the bench in another five.
By contrast, prior to starting all five games so far this summer, he had just 12 championship starts from 36 Dublin have played since 2010, a ratio of one in every three games.
With the chase for recognition came a need for constant visibility - McManamon may have felt compelled to be seen early and often.
How could a man used so sparingly during summer campaigns turn around at the beginning of the following season and declare himself in need of a break? In some ways it became a vicious cycle for the St Jude's man.
The concentration of so many games early on may have drawn something from him as the year progressed.
McManamon started just one of the 16 All-Ireland series matches Dublin played during his first six years on the panel - the quarter-final against Monaghan in 2014.
There were times, like the 2011 league final loss to Cork when he clipped over five points, that it looked he was ready to make the next step. But finding that consistent vein of form to cement a starting place was elusive.
Same when he hit 1-5 against Meath in the 2014 Leinster final, earning that start against Monaghan, but as first player off he lost his place the next day against Donegal as Costello was parachuted in.
He has beaten Paddy Andrews to the draw this time, having battled with him continuously throughout 2015 for that one 'floating' place. The young guns have had to bide their time too. Because this is McManamon's time.
His importance to Dublin has perhaps been best measured not in the volume or the quality of some of his scores, but in their timing, his goals against Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final and 2013 All-Ireland semi-final and against Mayo in both 2015 All-Ireland semi-finals illustrating that.
This year has been no different. Against Kerry it was his lead point at the end of normal time to make it 0-20 to 2-13 that arguably sowed most doubt in Kerry minds that the prize was slipping away from them.
Equally his third point against Donegal to re-open a four-point lead was hugely significant as Dublin had not scored for the 14 previous minutes since Diarmuid Connolly's dismissal. Again McManamon stepped up.
"It's the improvement with his so-called weaker foot that has been remarkable and also he is a better 'heads up' player than he was two years ago," says former Dublin manager Paul Caffrey.
"Whereas in the past he might have put the ball under his 'oxter' and taken a straight line, now he has far greater awareness of what's around him.
"The 'supersub' label was difficult to shake off because his impact was so effective.
"It can really damage you because the way the modern game has gone everyone wants to finish with a better team than they start with and that sometimes can be justified as the reason why a very good player doesn't get to start.
"The impact that he has had as a substitute has been phenomenal. I don't think there is any player in the history of the GAA has had the bombshell impact that he has had on other teams. He really has turned games on his head. And that went against him.
"It's a great testament to him that a fella who is established can still go away and improve."
Caffrey rates him as the best forward in Dublin club football after Connolly. "When you're playing Jude's it's a nightmare," he explains. "He can come out on to the '40' and take you from there.
"If McManamon gets you in a one-on-one you're in big trouble. That's still the thrill of Gaelic football, that there are not many forwards around who can do that continuously and he's one of them. By breaking the gain-line so often he just opens it up for other players. He commits a second defender most of the time."
On Sunday he'll get to march behind the band on All-Ireland final day, the dart piercing the middle of the board with laser precision, just like he aimed for last January.
But a nine-dart finish to his season may still await.