Deadly Dubs the new benchmark
DESPITE the massive build up for last Sunday's All Ireland football final, we were never going to witness a spectacle as we had as in the Dublin / Kerry semi-final thriller.
Games such as that only come along once every few decades and so, bearing in mind we had the two best teams in the final managed by two of the brightest young managers in the game, this was always going to be tight, dour and niggley for the simple reason that both managers had the opposition studied right down to the T.
That is exactly what we got. I have fancied Dublin from the beginning of the championship to come out on top and, while my heart yearned for a Mayo win, it was never on the cards and I was surprised so many pundits went for James Horan's men to end the famine which has existed since 1951.
Of course, Dublin have their weaknesses, no team in any sport is 100% perfect, nevertheless they have brought the standard of football back to a level which is most enjoyable to watch and their manager Jim Gavin deserves great credit for building such a template and encouraging his men to play open fast flowing, football in their winning league, Leinster and All Ireland campaigns.
I have often bemoaned in this column the terrible swarming, negative depressing style of play we have witnessed by many teams over the past few years both at county and unfortunately club level.
Coaches and managers copied those appalling playing systems introduced mainly by Tyrone and Donegal. I have even been told I should move with the times and embrace the modern game.
Well surely now followers who have lauded the recent Kerry / Dublin / Mayo approach to playing Gaelic football will hope that we have seen the end of the mind set – stop the opposition playing football – and now thanks to Dublin, Mayo and, of course, Kerry under Eamonn Fitzmaurice we have seen a far purer, traditional and hightly exciting brand of play in the closing stages of the championship.
Hopefully – but I have my reservations – we will see many more managers sending out their teams to play in this open free flowing way. It demands energy, determination and character and Dublin had all of this in abundance and indeed their ability to play at breakneck speed right up to the last whistle in their semi-final and final wins tilted the balance of victory in their favour.
And then they have the substitute's bench and Stephen Cluxton. These two factors have been their biggest weapons. While Kerry stymied Cluxton's kick-out strategy to a great extent in the semi-final last Sunday however we saw him give a master class exhibition of this kick-out tactic.
In the first half he found a team-mate with ten of his fourteen kick-outs. In the second half he found his man with each of his six kick-outs, he pointed a forty five and then trotted up to point a vital free, which proved to be the winning score.
Amazing stuff in any man's language and what trainer at club or county would not love to see his goalkeeper capable of this superb art of kicking to a team mate. It looks easy enough, but it takes months of practice on the training pitch.
While Cluxton can put the ball through the eye of a needle his men out the field play a vital part. Opening up the spaces for a player to run into and take the kick-out is a precise and exact skill.
The Dublin goalkeeper has brought the art of goalkeeping to a whole new level. By the way he is the only winning captain I have seen when being presented with the Sam Maguire Cup not smiling or appearing to enjoy the moment.
And then their substitutes have easily been the best of any team this year. Against Kerry and also last Sunday the men who came off the bench played a crucial part in the success.
Both in club and county it is now never more important to have a twenty man squad on the day, each and every replacement capable of making the big difference.
Without substitutes it will be near impossible to win an All Ireland title. That is the bottom line. However, all is not brightness and light in this latest Dublin win. The free ratio, 32-12 against Dublin is a stark, telling statistic and their cynical ploy in the closing minutes of literally pulling down Mayo players rugby style time after time for me tarnished their superb win.
The black card to be introduced next year to combat this sort of behaviour is going to cause some great debate.
And so the Mayo agony of defeats continues. They had great opportunities in the opening half to raise many white flags, but their shooting left them down. When Keith Higgins had to be redeployed to defence and Alan Freeman substituted their scoring treat was greatly reduced.
Cillian O'Connor despite kicking 0-8 points from frees had his treat from open play greatly reduced. Surely his shoulder injury problem going into the game hampered him. His decision then to take a point with the last play of the day was surprising as the referee told him, as he stated afterwards, there was thirty seconds to go.
A blast for a goal by Aidan O'Shea might even have come off and talking about Aidan I was surprised that he was not substituted in preference to his brother Seamus whom I felt was having a fine game.
Indeed, when Seamus went off the Dublin influence around the centre became even more pronounced as Aidan looked a weary player at this stage. Bernard Brogan's two beautifully fisted goals were superbly taken and indeed only for the outstanding goalkeeping of Mayo's Robert Hennelly, he made four brilliant saves, the margin would have been much greater. However, he should not have advanced from his goal line for Brogan's first fisted effort.
And so managers, trainers and selectors around the country will study the Dublin template in great detail as already we can say only next year matters at this time. Will Dublin now dominate Gaelic football? They have won ten of the last fifteen Leinster titles at three grades and won five All Ireland titles at the same levels in the last four seasons.
Finally it is my belief that Kerry have the best, natural most skilful and elegant footballers in the country. Tradition also means a huge lot and it should not be underestimated. If the panel can be strengthened in relation to what I have written, the importance of a strong panel is crucial.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice's men can win the All Ireland. Anything is now possible again following their dazzling display in the semi-final.