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Dublin learn to play their cards right ...

Yellow peril and cheap frees far less of an issue when tackling four-in-a-row

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SENT OFF: Referee Conor Lane shows the red card to Dublin’s John Small as the Ballymun Kickhams man is ordered off for a second yellow card offence in the All-Ireland SFC final victory over Tyrone Pic: Sportsfile

SENT OFF: Referee Conor Lane shows the red card to Dublin’s John Small as the Ballymun Kickhams man is ordered off for a second yellow card offence in the All-Ireland SFC final victory over Tyrone Pic: Sportsfile

SENT OFF: Referee Conor Lane shows the red card to Dublin’s John Small as the Ballymun Kickhams man is ordered off for a second yellow card offence in the All-Ireland SFC final victory over Tyrone Pic: Sportsfile

On the Monday morning after Dublin's four-in-a-row, Jack McCaffrey was waxing lyrical about how sound a bunch of blokes his teammates were away from the football arena.

In the midst of his eulogy, though, he said: "When we cross the white line we'll kill you, no two ways about it, we'll do whatever it takes to win."

All of which makes Dublin no different than any other group of persistently successful elite athletes.

To be the best, you need a bit of snarl to go with the smile.

Nugget

And yet ten days later, in their role as official statistics partner of the GAA, Sure revealed some fascinating stats from the summer just gone.

And included in their extensive dissection of Dublin was the following nugget: they had received just nine yellow cards, not a solitary black, along with two red cards during their eight-game SFC run to another All-Ireland title.

Those figures - the yellow card count especially - seemed incredibly low; but it was on the money. By way of comparison, Sure produced Dublin's card count from 2017 (when they played just six games): here they had a figure of 19 yellows, two blacks and one red.

Our own stats actually suggest a slightly higher count in 2017 (21 yellows instead of 19) but even allowing for any margin of error prompted by the occasional uncertainty over GAA bookings, the trend was undeniable.

Intrigued by this dramatic drop, The Herald has extended the trawl over all six SFC campaigns under Jim Gavin, focussing on the accumulation of cards plus the concession of converted frees and penalties.

The findings confirm the impression that Dublin were a tighter, more disciplined team in 2018, less inclined to cough up cheap frees in the scoring zone and even less likely to pick up bookings.

Their average of just over 1.1 yellow cards per game is by far the lowest in those six years. Its nearest rival was 2014 - a curious benchmark given it was Gavin's solitary All-Ireland failure - when they also had nine yellows but from just five outings, for an average of 1.8.

Their worst summer for bookings was 2017 when, according to The Herald's stats, they averaged 3.5. There is one obvious caveat: the figure of two red cards in 2018, both for John Small, constituted their worst summer under Gavin when you factor in that one of their two reds in 2016 (for Eoghan O'Gara) was later rescinded.

But the stats don't lie in another crucial area - the scoreboard. Dublin's concession of 1-25 from frees and a Peter Harte penalty in 2018 translates into an average of 3.5 points per game: superior to all five earlier seasons, including 2014 when they conceded 0-21 from five games for an average of 4.2.

Dragging

Under Gavin, the Dubs have been among the best at avoiding black cards - especially early in games, although they haven't been averse to dragging men down in stoppage-time.

This is reflected in the accumulation of just eight black cards in 33 championship ties since the anti-cynicism rule was introduced in 2014.

Half of that tally stems from their last four outings in 2016, with a further two apiece in 2015 (the same match against Mayo) and '17.

If you delve even deeper, into the identity of who has been carded, some other statistical gems emerge. Including …

  • John Small is the only Dub to have been sent off in the last two SFC campaigns - but it has happened three times, his double-yellow dismissals in consecutive finals (against Mayo and Tyrone) sandwiching a straight red last June, as a Leinster final sub against Laois. That decision was duly upheld by the Central Hearings Committee, to the chagrin of Gavin who insisted Small had "hit the ball first" and what followed was "just an accidental hit".
  • Diarmuid Connolly has received two of Dublin's six red cards - the first, against Mayo in 2015, was rescinded by the DRA; the second was for two bookings against Donegal in '16. He also received a 12-week ban last summer after being reported for "minor physical interference" with a linesman.
  • Of the 93 Dublin yellow cards totted up since 2013, Connolly leads the way with 11 - despite not featuring this year and his relatively fleeting involvement the summer before.
  • Next up is Small, who has tallied nine yellows in his three years as a regular starter - another indicator that he needs to temper his tenacity.
  • Given their perennial starter status and location of battle, it's hardly a surprise that Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy have each accumulated eight yellow cards and one black over the past six summers.
  • What's perhaps more surprising is that, contrary to stereotype, Philly McMahon has been booked just six times.
  • Unlike McMahon, Eoghan O'Gara doesn't play in defence and doesn't usually start; yet he has the same number of bookings ... or one more, if you include his 2016 red against Donegal, subsequently downgraded to yellow by the CHC. Templeogue Synge St clubman O'Gara was a sub for six of these seven cards.

In overall terms, Gavin's previous insistence (circa May 2017) that Dublin are not a cynical team carries more weight now than any other year.

They weren't so pristine during the league - even en route to recapturing the Division 1 crown, they received 23 yellows, two blacks and five reds.

However, what followed in summer points to a team that has become not just more measured in its shot selection and execution, but in its rearguard resistance and tackling technique.

There is, of course, one final caveat: they didn't play Mayo, with all the mayhem that rivalry tends to produce.

Consider this: over the past six summers, Dublin's top three free concessions (1-8 in the 2015 semi-final draw, 0-9 in the '16 final replay, and 0-8 in the '13 decider) all came against Mayo.

Their six SFC collisions with the green-and-red have also produced 25 yellows, five blacks and two reds for Dublin.

Maybe it requires that kind of in-your-face challenge to bring some belligerence out of the best.


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