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What to do about the Dubs?


Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney speaks to his player. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney speaks to his player. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney speaks to his player. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

LAST Friday morning in Kildare's impressive training base in Hawkfield just outside Newbridge, Kieran McGeeney sat down to talk Dublin, Sunday's Leinster semi-final, Friday-night football, his under-21 players, his veterans, those between either label – and just about anything else that was raised by the attending media.

If you reckoned McGeeney thought deeply about football, you'd be right. And if you held the suspicion that in some place prominent in Geezer's thought bubble was Dublin, you might not be too far off the mark either.

Either that, or his internal dossier on all of football's leading teams is truly awesome, for the depth of his analysis of this Dublin team was, doubtless, the most interesting component of the interview.

The Kildare manager has never conformed to widely-held views of any team, player or issue in Gaelic football, so there was no shock last Friday at Kildare's press briefing when, piece by piece, angle by angle, he deconstructed Dublin's tactics, their strengths, the change in their team under Jim Gavin and any potential weaknesses.

"They seem to be unbeatable, or that's the way it's portrayed out there," he mused during a fairly comprehensive 35-minute interview, drawing attention both to the perception of Gavin's high-flying team and, perhaps, some inner belief that Sunday can be the day Kildare, under McGeeney, finally put their Dublin hoodoo somewhere snugly to rest.

"It's a different team," he added of the metamorphosis they have undergone since Gavin's arrival and Pat Gilroy's exit.

"That particular Dublin team were probably a bit more defensively orientated than this current one. They still follow the pattern of the modern game.

"Although some people see it as negative, it's not that. It's just, if you're in the forwards, you actually have to work for a change.

"Belief is important in any walk of life but there is definitely an aura of invincibility at the moment and if you buy into that, it's going to help."



BACK in January 2010, at the launch of the leagues at Allianz headquarters, McGeeney was asked, as someone who had spent a decade playing his club football in Dublin with Na Fianna, how Dublin football had sunk as low as it had just a few months earlier with their humiliation at the hands of Kerry in Croke Park.

He offered expansive reasoning that included Dublin's status as a dual county, the myriad "outside distractions" which come hand-in-hand with living in the capital, backing Gilroy's reconstruction work.

Less than two years later, they were All-Ireland champions. A year later, they were minor and under-21 champions and suddenly, from that '09 nadir, a golden era for Dublin is being mooted.

So what has changed? The sudden explosion of a higher class of Dublin footballer or something less obvious?

"I would say that's a big part of it but I would also say that they have gotten a lot more aggressive," McGeeney insists.

"It's a contact sport and you have to be good at it . . . I know the rules haven't changed in Gaelic football but definitely the refereeing has let a lot more go – is it called a slow whistle now? They have a phrase for it – it suits Dublin. They're physically well developed. They're very strong in the tackle. The likes of Paul Flynn, (Ciarán) Kilkenny, Michael Darragh, Ger Brennan ... all around the middle eight."

"Mayo are like that as well. Very strong and aggressive in the middle eight. It's hard to break through them. Their willingness to work makes them hard to beat.

"When you go to play Dublin you are going into their back yard.

"They have huge confidence going into all games, the way they have been playing, like, and you know they've changed definitely over the last 10 years. They are far more physical and bigger.



DUBLIN have, with the arrival of players like Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion, the emergence of Jonny Cooper and the continued presence of Cian O'Sullivan, James McCarthy, Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan, been talked of as one of the speediest teams ever to assemble.

According to McGeeney though, Dublin are "not that much quicker than a lot of the top teams that are out there".

And their pace, zippy though it undoubtedly is, is accentuated by their ability to turn defence into attack, both often and high up the pitch, a by-product of their real selling point – their zeal in the tackle and penchant for ripping clean possession, claims McGeeney.

"I would say outside of the Tyrone team of 2005, 2008, it's a while since I have seen a team with that sort of work ethic, especially in the middle third. They tackle really, really well with great intensity.

"I would say that is probably their biggest asset, because they break teams down and get them on the counter and then pace is more effective that way. I wouldn't say they're faster than any of the top four or five teams, but they are probably ... Their work ethic to date, I would say, has been superior to everyone else's."



SOME have tried, some have succeeded, most have failed. The Stephen Cluxton kick-out is among the most cited reasons for Dublin's success of late and targeting it, or at least minimising its efficiency, is generally a prerequisite for any opposing team.

"I don't think you ever realise how good somebody is or how bad somebody is until you actually train with them. But watching Cluxton train and his attention to detail was quite extraordinary," says McGeeney of his time spent in conjunction with the Dublin captain on the Irish International Rules team.

"He keeps his defence on his toes. Watching the Westmeath game, it was hard to know whether it was their strategy or not, but they tended to give Dublin a lot of their kick-outs.

"Although there was a few ones fifty-fifty in the middle. But Westmeath's midfield are quite tall as well so they were able to compete for that. I would still say Cluxton's kick-outs are probably still up at an 85 to 95 per cent success rate, which is still very, very high.

"A major part of that is down to their ability to work," he added. "If you look at Paul Flynn looking for a kick-out, he'll run from one side to the other side and come back again; he'll run 120 metres for the one kick-out, to lose his man.

"People often see him winning the kick-out but not the two or three runs he did to lose the player and get to that point."



DURING the league, colourful garlands of praise were dropped freely at the feet of Dublin and Jim Gavin, firstly for the emphasis on attack and secondly, for putting the 'foot' back into football.

Whether that emphasis persists remains to be seen, as do most of the facets of good link play, according to McGeeney.

"There's more to a kick-pass than the person kicking it," he explains.

"Your inside line is very important in creating that space because a defender will stay with you for the first run but the good defender will see the second and third runs as well.

"It's those runs, or the fifth or sixth, that will lose defenders and trying to make sure that run is into the scoring 'D', which I think Dublin are fantastic at, especially Paddy Andrews and Bernard Brogan.

"Most of the balls they'd get would be in that area. A lot of players may make one or two runs but the runs tend to be out of the scoring 'D'. They'll pick it up around the 35, 45-yard line. They're running out of that particular area but Dublin really put an emphasis on passing into the scoring area and that's what they're particularly good at."



ALL of which has contributed a double-sided impression of Dublin, the bright side of which focuses on their free-scoring, league-winning exploits and predicts automatic future success.

The potential kickback though, although not one yet fully explored, is the very obvious gaps which are being left at the back and the potential perilous isolation in which their inside backs find themselves.

"Yes, they do, but that's something Jim's been very unapologetic about," McGeeney notes. "That attitude is, 'Look, we're just going to score more than you' – that's their style.

"At the same time," he adds, "while they've given up a lot of goal chances, not many people have taken that against them, so is that up to other teams or their own excellent work-rate? I think you could make an argument for both.

"The new style that Jim is playing is very hard to stop. They are coming at you in numbers, at pace. They have moved onto a different level this year, so it is going to be tough to stay with them.

"But," McGeeney concludes, "as I say, that's why we all play."