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The case for the defence

WHEN certain opinions are aired frequently enough, there comes a tipping point when they mutate into 'fact'. They are taken as inarguable points of law, not points for debate.

WHEN certain opinions are aired frequently enough, there comes a tipping point when they mutate into 'fact'. They are taken as inarguable points of law, not points for debate.

So it is with the Dublin football team as they park a gloriously successful spring audition and prepare for the real business of championship.

Fact number one: Dublin are a joy to behold as an attacking force, the free-scoring antithesis of the modern obsession with massed defence.

Fact number two: As the worrying flip side of being so gung-ho going forward, the Dublin defence is potentially ripe for the plunder this summer.

All of which may carry a ring of truth but to declare it as 'fact' – before a championship ball has been kicked in anger – is stretching matters.

By the same token, we shouldn't overplay the 'fact' of Dublin's attacking riches just yet, given their meandering attempts to breach Tyrone's defensive blanket until Dean Rock saved the Allianz League final day.

We digress; back to the backs. Yes, Dublin's game-plan has obviously evolved in the managerial transition from Pat Gilroy to Jim Gavin. Yes, they are committing more men to attack, with half-backs given a licence to roam seldom enjoyed under the previous regime. Yes, there has been a more orthodox man-for-man rearguard which has been breached too often for comfort (while offering plentiful reminders of the genius that is Stephen Cluxton).

In summary, yes, Dublin have defensive fallibilities to address before launching their Leinster SFC campaign against Westmeath or Carlow on June 1 ... but no, that doesn't necessarily translate into long-term defects that cannot be resolved over the next few pivotal months.

MICK FITZSIMONS offered an interesting take when asked about Dublin's portrayed shift in mindset (to one where attack is supposedly the best form of defence) when speaking at the county's pre-championship 'Open Night' in Ballyboden St Enda's last Friday. "No," he replied, he didn't see one.

"There are similarities. There's no big, huge, massive difference," clarified the Cuala defender who, following hip surgery last November, is now chomping at the bit for a championship recall.

When asked if it was a case of people latching onto an idea which then becomes fact, he expanded: "I remember, as a kid, hearing stuff about that Armagh team, and it's probably the same for people growing up now, hearing so much about that Donegal team. A lot of stuff gets created but, at the end of the day, a lot of teams are doing very similar things. It's just whoever wins ends up getting that big mysticism built about that."

Fitzsimons was an integral part of the defence that Gilroy drastically revamped in the wake of Dublin's calamitous collapse to Kerry in 2009. His was a man-marking role within the broader context of a zonal defensive screen provided by the sweeping Ger Brennan and retreating half-forwards.

In 2010 especially, the onus on defence was starkly illustrated by a mass of Sky Blue bodies clogging up the space in front of Cluxton's goal. The following year, the game-plan was modified with glorious All-Ireland winning consequences: they were less reliant on one go-to forward (Bernard Brogan) but the focus on score prevention was still evident in their confinement of Kerry's marquee attack to 1-11 in the final.

Still, to suggest that Dublin in the last three years under Gilroy were paragons of defensive frugality is to forget some early teething problems (Meath's spectacular five-goal blast in June 2010) and also some fraying at the edges post-2011 (Mayo hit them for 20 points in last year's league, then 0-19 in the All-Ireland semi-final).

Now fast-forward to this year's league. Gavin has actively encouraged his backs to double as counter-attacking conduits. Jack McCaffrey is the standout example: no surprise there, because it would surely be a dereliction of duty not to utilise a player of his turf-devouring pace and silken ball-skills.

But he's not the only one. The playmaking talents of Brennan have been encouraged, never more evident than during the league semi-final against Mayo. In the run-up to the final against Tyrone, the centre-back talked about there being "more freedom" to support the attack and even joked of the contrast under Gilroy (his fellow clubman) thus: "I think they'd an ankle strap on me, so I couldn't go any further than the halfway line!"

Darren Daly, a fringe player under Gilroy, has been given an extended league audition under Gavin. The Fingal Raven has veered between wing and corner-back but he, too, hasn't been shy about supplementing the attack.

According to Daly, there is no specific instruction to go forward, but players are actively encouraged to "express" themselves and so, if the opening is there, you go for it.

Midfield dynamo Michael Darragh Macauley makes a similar point. "Lads have game-plans in the back of their head and all this thing ... but you have to play a bit of football. And there's one thing that Jim has done: he's told us to express ourselves as footballers," says the 2011 All Star.

Too much emphasis on game plans, he reckons, can be counter-productive: you forget how to play.

AND, in fairness to the 'new' Dublin, they have played more football than anyone else thus far, and more successfully too. Nine league games, seven victories, one draw and just one defeat.

They have scored heavily from an array of sources while simultaneously conducting an extensive player trawl and introducing new tactics too, which is no mean feat.

Even their much-scrutinised defensive 'stats', on paper, scarcely make for scary reading. During the seven regulation league rounds, only one top-flight rival (a relegated Donegal, strangely) leaked less than Dublin's 5-73. Five other teams, all in Division Three or Four, had lower concession rates but you are scarcely comparing like with like. When you factor in their semi-final and final, Dublin gave up just five goals in nine games.

But? Well, it's a point of record that Dublin coughed up far more than five goal chances: Cluxton's unflappable aura in one-on-one combat against Cork, Donegal and Mayo papered over several gaping cracks through the middle.

"We know that's an area we need to work on –- stupid goal chances," admitted Fitzsimons, whose own game-time this spring was limited to a 10-minute comeback cameo in Donegal.

At least the Dublin players know where they must improve, and this is sure to focus defensive minds. Here are another three reasons for encouragement: James McCarthy, Kevin Nolan and Rory O'Carroll.

McCarthy only returned for the league final after his All-Ireland club commitments followed by injury complications. Nolan has barely featured all season. O'Carroll was described earlier this year, by former boss Paul Caffrey, as Dublin's one "irreplaceable" player and yet the full-back powerhouse didn't play a single minute of their last five league outings following ankle surgery in March.

Like Nolan, who needs games, and McCarthy, O'Carroll is now fit and available on the cusp of championship, confirming the one thing Gavin has in abundance: gilt-edged options.

And that's a fact.


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