Sunday 4 December 2016

Versatile Kilkenny offers an extra option in attack

Published 01/08/2015 | 02:30

Dublin forward Ciaran Kilkenny attempts to hold off the challenge of James Dolan of Westmeath during last month’s Leinster final
Dublin forward Ciaran Kilkenny attempts to hold off the challenge of James Dolan of Westmeath during last month’s Leinster final

A few riddles to be solved in the big blue house tomorrow and even the inevitability of the result is unlikely to please all the metropolitan faithful as they cast their gaze into autumn.

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Hard to please all of the people all of the time; indeed, we met some locals this week who refuse to engage with a Fermanagh tie they dismiss as a non-contest which will ultimately undo their All-Ireland challenge the next day.

And they may skip that, too.

Still, there are many, many thousands whose devotion remains unstinting but even some of them remain swathed in doubt as to the definitive status of Dublin's real strength in light of their feeble Leinster Championship challenge.

Fermanagh may, or may not, provide a sterner test of ambition; they have their own riddle to solve; namely how to apply a defensive system without sacrificing scoring intent.

When they lost to Monaghan in the Ulster Championship, there was a notable cameo early on when Paul McCusker won a great turnover ball on halfway and immediately looked to the corner for a foot pass.

When he did so, the only player inside, Seán Quigley, was almost running past him to shore up the half-forward defensive press. End of move.

That is their problem.

Dublin's will be how to cope with such stifling traffic today; critics alighted on their impatient shot selection and often ponderous build-up against Westmeath the last day as indicative of their perennial struggle with defensive blankets.

The league outings against Derry, Tyrone and Monaghan added fuel to the fire; even against Westmeath, three of the starting forwards and the first two substitutes failed to score from play and 16 wides were a damning stat for glass-half-full merchants.

Thieved

Eoghan O'Gara's cruciate injury has thieved Jim Gavin's men of an option which, although aesthetically perhaps repugnant to the coach, could yet provide a viable trump card as summer segues into autumn.

Mayo, Donegal and Kerry have such options, albeit the champions shifted that focus temporarily in the second Cork game; for Dublin, Ciarán Kilkenny would appear to be the perfect candidate for such a role if Gavin and his brains trust seek to tinker.

It can be assumed behind doors that they already have.

Despite the seemingly effortless progress of the side, there are needling concerns with Dublin's attack, ironically given the appropriate adjustments to the defensive structure that undid them in 2014.

The above stats may have been a one-off but, Footballer of the Year front-runner Diarmuid Connolly aside, the sum of Dublin's attack is not really hitting the heights its constituent parts suggest it should.

Kilkenny has been Dublin's other best forward but, as a 50pc return from distance last time showed, his changeable kicking style doesn't always consistently produce and chances may not be as prominent come semi-final time.

The main thing is that Kilkenny is producing such wonderful form at all.

Like O'Gara, he suffered his own cruciate nightmare just a year earlier while still wallowing in the 2013 All-Ireland success that had franked his decision to turn his back on an AFL pro contract.

It has surprised few that he has become such a key contributor to a Dublin side in which such key figures - notably Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley - have been heavy-legged of late.

Dean Rock, whose proficiency from placed balls is metronomic, has struggled to keep pace with his performances in general play while it has also been clear that the law of diminishing returns is afflicting Kevin McManamon when the Judes' rocket is asked to tog out from first whistle.

"Ciarán is in good form," confirms Jim Gavin of a player who, infamously, was dismissed by Jack O'Shea's "junior footballer" barb a couple of years back.

"Ciarán has done a lot of hard work to get himself back into that physical condition that he's in. Both himself and Kevin O'Brien worked very hard together.

"Ciarán was always a technically gifted player. The tactical side of his game continues to develop.

"That has been a marked improvement and he continues to improve in every game so it's good to have him back."

Martin Kennedy, the squad's athletic development coach, undertook most of the rehabilitation and recovery work for both Kilkenny and fellow cruciate victim O'Brien alongside the medical team as well.

Tactical

"There would be regular meetings with players where we review their targets and whether they have met them," explains Gavin .

"It's just important to keep them involved around the squad in terms of tactical elements and the culture you want to have in the team.

"They are mentally very strong and were determined to get back for this season.

"Last December they were both more or less there, we just took the decision not to put them in the pre-season competitions and the early series of the National League so that when they came back they were ready to play.

"It was always their call anyway. The medical team would say they are right and the athletic department would say they are good to go. If the player feels right, he's right."

Kilkenny, still just 22, is currently deploying that heady concoction of tactical nous and technical brilliance to superb effect for his manager.

But there may come a time when he returns to the role that featured significantly during his underage stardom.

Perhaps we get another fleeting glimpse tomorrow afternoon.

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