Saturday 23 September 2017

Tommy Conlon: Dublin's swagger stripped away to reveal a solid core

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

It wasn't the sweeping extravaganza that many had expected but it was still unmistakeably the stuff of which heavyweight contests are made.

This All-Ireland final was a grinding battle between Dublin and Mayo teams that had the physical stamina and mental willpower to soak up all the punishment that was going, and to come back for more.

If neither produced the fluent, freewheeling football that had defined their previous performances, it was because they were more committed to facing each other down.

The result was mutual gridlock. It was, said Paul Flynn, "the hardest game I have played in my whole life."

For Dublin supporters, it was a victory that lacked the euphoric drama of the 2011 final. For the players however the sense of fulfilment must've been profound, knowing that they'd endured such a sustained test of their fortitude and fibre.

It wasn't that Mayo had menaced them all day with lethal forward play, as Kerry had done in the semi-final. It was that Mayo refused to go away. Dublin could not shake them off; they couldn't get rid of them. A Mayo side that had visibly wilted at various stages, even as early as 25 minutes, kept hanging onto their coat-tails. They kept hanging on right through a second half in which the tide was going against them and, at times, threatening to drown them.

Dublin were the better team but they earned their honours on Sunday the hard way – the best way.

If the final showed anything, it is that the new champions are built on a solid foundation of hard-headed realism. The dreaded "swagger" that was part and parcel of so many previous Dublin teams has been banished, at least for now. That old swagger was often the coat of paint that concealed a hollow core.

On Sunday, the Dubs were tough and resolute, in body and mind. Their concentration by and large was rock solid. They marked tight; they hit hard; they grafted all over the field. Almost everyone was tuned into these basics.

The fitter and stronger a team is, the better they are able to do them. This Dublin team has an enormous athletic capacity. It is populated with tall, mobile athletes who can devour swathes of space in a matter of strides. Most of them seem to have a high cruising speed; their running power looks smooth and easy. It is a team made for the open spaces of Croke Park.

They can burn off most sides simply by exhausting them. Once they create an overlap out of defence, they are suddenly bearing down on goal at the other end. Opponents have to expend huge reserves of energy just by chasing back, or tracking runners that mightn't get near the ball in a given move. It is draining and demoralising.

And it is made worse by a Dublin goalkeeper who will not give you a chance even to catch your breath. When Stephen Cluxton is pinging his kick-outs right and left to a chosen target, as soon as the previous play has gone dead, the chasing and covering begins all over again. Cluxton was remorseless in the speed and precision of his restarts last Sunday. He kept Dublin on the front foot, he single-handedly left several Mayo players running on empty.

Dublin's rampaging athleticism is the main reason why they create so many goalscoring chances. The ball-carrier motors past the first tackle and eats up the ground in front of him. Immediately there are possibilities: overlaps, outnumbered defences, or a runner arriving late from midfield to take the final pass.

Mayo were opened up in this fashion on a number of occasions. At times it looked downright scary for them as Dublin players poured into the spaces created. They scored two goals and could have had three more were it not for Rob Hennelly's brave, brilliant goalkeeping.

In reality, this should not have been a one-point game. Mayo could have played a lot better, especially in terms of their passing and finishing. But physically they went to the end of their tether. They ran themselves into the ground in their efforts to hang on and stay in touch.

Dublin however would have coasted home had they taken at least one more of their goal chances. And throughout the second half they always looked to

have more power in reserve. The ease with which they again opened up Mayo, for Bernard Brogan's second goal, seemed to be proof of that. Four minutes earlier, Andy Moran had galvanised the Connacht champions with his goal. And now the Dubs were carving them open once more, seemingly at the flick of a switch.

Brogan's goal should have closed the door. But they left it ajar and Mayo got up off the canvas. This sort of resilience can unnerve an opposing team, especially a team that knows it's had the upper hand for so long. Suddenly they're looking over their shoulder at opponents who should have been dead and buried but are still there.

So they went into their shell for the last ten minutes, retreating in numbers behind the ball and inviting Mayo onto them. Mayo had plenty of the ball; they didn't have the craft and penetration to make it count.

In the end the match petered out, the heavyweights still locked together, but holding each other up now as the bell sounded for the final time.

thecouch@independent.ie

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