Saturday 25 February 2017

Solving Dublin's Puzzle

Finally there are signs that Gilroy's jigsaw is coming together, writes Colm Keys

The soon-to-be-refloated 1980s US TV series 'The A-Team' invariably concluded with the same corny catchphrase from the cigar -chomping leader of the quartet.

"I love it when a plan comes together," Hannibal would smugly declare at the end of another episode where little or no blood was spilled, or lives lost.

We can't be sure about the amount of blood spilled, but there is life in Dublin football, though not enough yet, perhaps, for Pat Gilroy to take a leaf out of Hannibal's book.

There are tentative signs, however, that it might just be fusing the way it was intended after last weekend. The jigsaw, finally, is showing a definite pattern.

Beating Armagh, regardless of the paucity of their attack, represents a significant milestone in the redevelopment of the Dublin blueprint.

One more win this weekend against Louth and Gilroy can start looking forward to expanding those plans in 2011, something that looked like a distinct impossibility after the chaos of their Leinster semi-final defeat to Meath.

In the few days after that defeat there was a feel of dead men walking about the Dublin management. But they have held their nerve under the pressure and returned to the convictions they carried into this championship in the first place.

On reflection, as bad as the scoreline suggested Dublin were that day, little things didn't run right for them.

Paul Flynn's shot off the crossbar early in the second half, just after Meath's second goal, would have brought parity and provided badly needed momentum.

The moves leading to any one of three Meath goals might have stalled under the diligence of a different referee.

But on Saturday evening the one part of the plan that Dublin have put most stock into came right for them.

The principle of conceding less than their opponents rather than trying to score more was finally adhered to.

cameo

A little cameo in the 33th minute is something that Gilroy is sure to have held up to his players in analysis this week as the best example of the style he has been trying to impose.

Armagh were threatening on Dublin's 14-metre line, but bodies were committed in numbers and within five seconds the Orchard men had been pushed by sheer persistence outside the 45-metre line.

Kevin Nolan eventually turned over Charlie Vernon and a point accrued, Dublin's fourth, to close the gap to two points.

It's not pretty, it's damaging the footfall into Croke Park as much as the weather, the prices and the comfort of TV, but after ditching the propensity for more defence between the Wexford and Meath games, Gilroy will stick to his beliefs from now on and live or die by them.

Some clear patterns have been emerging from the various starting teams in the four games, patterns that are surprising as much as they are revealing.

So far Dublin have used 25 players from a squad of 30-plus in the championship, just slightly above the average of other inter-county teams with the same number of games.

Kerry, for instance, in the same number of games, have used 23 players to date, taking a winning route to the quarter-finals.

Some appearances have been fleeting -- Paul Casey had just two minutes against Tipperary, Paddy Andrews played four minutes and Darren Magee came off the bench for 12 minutes, both against Armagh.

Cian O'Sullivan lasted just four minutes of the opening game against Wexford before withdrawing with a hamstring injury and Denis Bastick's red card put him out of the picture for two more games.

So, for all the twisting between matches, Dublin have effectively stabilised with a group drawn from a core of 20 players.

Only six Dublin players have started each of the four championship games to date: Stephen Cluxton, all three members of the full-back line, Mick Fitzsimons, Rory O'Carroll and Philip McMahon, as well as forwards Niall Corkery and Bernard Brogan.

The conviction to keep Fitzsimons, O'Carroll and McMahon together has been ultra firm.

If there was to be change it would have come after the five -goal drubbing from Meath, but faith in a trio, who had just one championship start between them prior to the opening game against Wexford, has been unwavering and symptomatic of the management's determination to get things right at the back first.

That approach was justified last Saturday by O'Carroll's policing of Stevie McDonnell and McMahon's intuition to clear Brian Mallon's goal-bound shot off the line.

Not every conviction the management have committed to can be justified to the same extent. Corkery could never be faulted for his work-rate, but he has been replaced in his last three games. His position must now be under threat.

Eoghan O'Gara's bright showing against Tipperary faded in the first half against Armagh; he may watch the early exchanges with Louth from the bench.

But many of the ideas propagated during the league are now reaping reward in the championship, two games into a qualifier run that Gilroy had warned Dublin might have to engage in.

The full-back line, Michael Darragh Macauley, half-forwards with strong defensive orientation and Bernard Brogan in splendid isolation are all now bearing fruit.

Not everything has worked. Moving captain David Henry from half-forward to substitute to half-back and then half-forward again has clearly shot his confidence. Barry Cahill has tracked a similarly uncertain route, his non-use against Tipperary hardly ideal preparation for starting against Armagh.

It's far from perfect and it might not create enough momentum, but Dublin's target was always a return to quarter-finals one way or another. That remains firmly on course.

Irish Independent

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