Thursday 23 February 2017

Individual feats of talent and determination ensure collective recovery

Damian Lawlor

Simple reassurance was offered by Jim Gavin: difficult roads often lead to worthwhile destinations
Simple reassurance was offered by Jim Gavin: difficult roads often lead to worthwhile destinations

On the Tuesday after Dublin's collapse to Donegal in last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Jim Gavin sat down with his senior players and began to map out his plan for 2015. By Saturday, the entire squad, backroom team and management had gathered to dissect the game and plot a way forward.

Simple reassurance was offered by Gavin: difficult roads often lead to worthwhile destinations. But there was one pressing issue. They needed to add steel to their style for the business end of the season. The players were lifted by his resolve. It reminded them of when he first took the job, highlighted a three-year plan and then dismissed it, stating they would win the championship in year one.

And so, before the 2014 All-Ireland final even took place, everyone bar Alan Brogan was back on board and this Dublin team, its reputation on the slide, set about restoring confidence and stability.

Introspection from players and management was also vital; sometimes the first part of the journey is the one within.

Denis Bastick was a perfect case study in that regard. He was 35, had become a dad and his body was creaking. He didn't get off the bench against Donegal and retirement was beginning to loom. But Bastick gritted his teeth and hit the road again, ended last Sunday with a third All-Ireland having only made his debut at 28.

Consider that between 2001 and 2013 he underwent three shoulder reconstructive surgeries, tore an AC joint in those besieged shoulders and then tore the cruciate in his right knee. In 2009, he broke his right ankle and in 2011 damaged ankle ligaments on the eve of the All-Ireland final. 2012 saw another shoulder operation while 2013 brought knee cartilage removal and more torn medial ligaments. Another player would have been checking the terms and conditions of his health insurance plan, but Bastick returned and his galvanising presence last Sunday ensured they wouldn't be overrun like they were against Donegal.

Cian O'Sullivan was another defensive screen. His positioning was crucial in Dublin learning from the mistakes of last season. Up to the first Mayo game gaps still existed in their rearguard and in the drawn encounter the Connacht side had them on the ropes for the last ten minutes. When they ran from deep they scorched them - it was Donegal all over again. But they learned for the replay and proved impossible for Kerry to break down.

Dublin actually left three players up front which offered an attacking outlet throughout, but they pulled everyone else back and O'Sullivan sat in front of his full-back line, playing both the blocking and quarter-back roles to perfection. On several occasions Kerry's incoming runners looked set to strike but O'Sullivan obstructed their way. Dublin were much more difficult to penetrate.

Alan Brogan, fending off retirement, provided another cog in the wheel. The 33-year-old came on in all of Dublin's summer outings and his final introduction was key. "He has been doing that for 15 years," said his brother Bernard. "He lifts everyone and just calms things down. The slagging at home from the father can stop now because we have three now ourselves. Alan had a big call to make, but we're glad he made the right move."

The elder Brogan and Bastick will probably retire, but the rest should be around to try to retain the title. Fringe players will be hungry for action and this will drive them on again.

Here's an example of that fight for places: In February, members of the backroom felt that Eric Lownes would keep Jack McCaffrey off the team. The young wing-back felt the heat himself and reacted. He is now a leading contender for Footballer of the Year. That he even played the All-Ireland final - or lasted so long - is a miracle. Last Sunday morning, his family gave him little chance of appearing after a gastric bug hit. When he was eventually replaced, he vomited in the stands having been ill for three days and spent 24 hours on a drip. But McCaffrey had been on fire since the start of the NFL, had scored 2-8 between spring and September, and felt he had ploughed too much into the season not to be involved in its showpiece.

And it's interesting that two Meath men helped to get him right. Gerry McEntee put him in touch with Seán Boylan who mixed a herbal remedy to clear his system. It worked. McCaffrey can now enjoy the winter with his fourth All-Ireland medal (two senior and two under 21) secured.

The same warm afterglow didn't linger too long around his defensive colleague, Philly McMahon, with allegations of eye-gouging quickly surfacing. His role this season was also hugely significant. The Ballymun defender was quick to defend his style of play but his reputation now goes before him and that's a pity because no-one has worked harder to establish his credentials.

On and off the field, McMahon has worked relentlessly when some GAA players are taking career breaks to focus on their code. On the eve of the 2013 All-Ireland final, he spent the night at Tallaght Stadium watching Shamrock Rovers in a cup match. He worked as strength and conditioning coach for Rovers for two years and was very well regarded. Last year, he turned down an offer of a professional career as an S&C coach with an English League Two club. Long term, however, he could follow the trail of Jim McGuinness. He is also the owner of, and personal trainer at, three gyms. His days start at 6.0am and sometimes don't end until 10.0pm.

So, in life, McMahon has made something of himself and in sport he has too. In 2009, for instance, he was dropped and became a bit-part player for long periods, but he ended this year with 1-6 from play, incredible from a corner-back. He will get a deserved All-Star but a trail of controversial incidents mean he is unlikely to follow Marc Ó Sé as only the second corner-back to be crowned Footballer of the Year. That's another real shame.

For a spell against Mayo first time out it seemed like there was a general lapse of discipline affecting the team as Cillian O'Connor clocked up 1-9 from placed balls. Dublin were petulant, conceded 24 frees and picked up three yellow cards, two black and one red. There was a marked change for the replay. The pettiness vanished and they managed an impressive 43 attacks.

They also coped with their 'keeper Stephen Cluxton having an off year by his own standards in terms of distribution. Cluxton's kick-out skills have redefined the game, but maybe he has become too concerned that rival teams are now regularly cracking his code.

In the drawn semi-final, when Mayo pushed up rather than employing a zonal marking system to counteract his kickouts, he was rattled. In the second half, Mayo went man to man, forcing him to go long with four of his 15 restarts and they took six in total. He was rattled.

Once again, though, Dublin adapted and for the replay the Connacht champions only managed to win one.

While Cluxton's display on Sunday last was indifferent, they got away with it. Kerry's malaise on the day also played a part in Dublin prevailing. On a day for the long ball they had Paul Geaney at number 14 where Kieran Donaghy might perhaps have been better employed. No-one could begrudge Geaney a starting role but the tactics seemed geared for Donaghy. When he eventually came in Kerry were chasing the game, Dublin were calmer and Paul Flynn went back to effectively help double-mark the Kerry giant. Again heeding the painful memories of last year, the Dubs simply made themselves harder to break down.

On another day they could have punished Kerry even further, after all they hit 12 wides and missed six goal chances.

But when the postscript is written for the 2015 season, the insatiable desire of players who sacrificed so much, guys like McMahon, Bastick, Alan Brogan and McCaffrey will prevail. Brian Fenton's emergence, Bernard Brogan's continued excellence and O'Sullivan's intelligence all combined to get them over the line. 
These individual feats of talent and determination merged to banish the horrific memories of the recent past and grab eight titles from an available nine since Jim Gavin took charge. It's astonishing. "This team is the sum of its parts," Gavin insists. "We've always stressed that. And that's what brought us home."

And so the plotting for 2016 can begin.

Sunday Indo Sport

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