Saturday 21 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'People are saying Kerry have nothing to lose today, but this is not true. It's a day of destiny'

'Our greatest fear is being made to look bad in public. Kerry wouldn't be human if they didn't have these thoughts'

Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I've been trying to figure out a way to beat Dublin. I asked Johnny Bradley that question last week. Johnny, who does the stats for The Sunday Game, texted back, "World peace easier."

People are saying Kerry have nothing to lose today, but this is not true. What is our greatest fear? Or at least, what is a sportsman's greatest fear? I believe it is being made to look bad in public. To be humiliated on a national scale. Every player going out to face this Dublin team feels fear in his stomach. He wonders if it is going to be an apocalypse, a disaster, an event that will force them indoors until the spring comes.

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Mayo came to Croke Park three weeks ago with a proud tradition and a huge support. They departed anonymously.

The great sportswriter George Plimpton said once that he always felt a great sadness for the vanquished heavyweight fighter. "They enter the ring like a colossus, they leave the size of a pea." No one notices Dublin's victims as they dart out of the stadium, whisked away to some late-night bar to drown their sorrows. The Kerry boys would not be human if they didn't have these thoughts.

At the moment, Kerry are in a cocoon of positive thinking and tactics and Kerry tradition. But when they jog to their positions at 3.29 today they will surely wonder if the sky is going to fall on their heads. The thing about Dublin is that they can score as quickly as a hurling team. One minute you are two or three up. Ten minutes later they have bagged 3-6 and you are praying that the ground will swallow you up. This happened to everybody in 2018. And everybody so far in 2019.

In 2017, Jimmy McGuinness said that to beat them, "five simultaneous game plans are needed" which was too many dots and arrows for even Peter Canavan to put on one screen. If you think that was confusing, spare a thought for Jimmy's players at Charlotte Independence.

To date, no one has been able to perfect the five-simultaneous-game-plans strategy, and even if they had, it would be out of date by now. The Dubs have adapted to all forms of defensive systems, assimilated all forms of best practice and created an attacking method that is as close to perfection as sport can permit.

Watching back their 2016 draw and replay All-Ireland win against Mayo, it is striking how much they have improved since then, and how much more intelligent they have become. A small example: In the drawn game, they were one point up with 45 seconds left in injury time. They had a sideline kick from a very difficult angle. Diarmuid Connolly came over, took the ball and went for a score. It went wide. From the kick-out, Mayo worked the ball to Cillian O'Connor who kicked the equaliser. In the 2017 final, with 75 minutes gone and two left, Dublin were again a point up, with a sideline from the identical spot as a year earlier. This time, they worked it back to Stephen Cluxton, weaving passing patterns all around the field, holding the ball until the final whistle sounded.

It is since 2017, however, that they have made the biggest improvements. Now, there is an uncanny similarity between their attacking play and Corofin's.

In Corofin's annihilations of very good teams in the last two club finals, they did not take a single shot from play outside the 30-metre scoring arc in front of goals. In Dublin's victory over Tyrone last year, their Super 8 wins this year (I do not count the farce in Omagh) and their recent demolition of Mayo, they didn't take a single score from play outside the 30-metre scoring arc. This is not a simple strategy. A manager cannot simply exhort his players to shoot only inside the scoring zone. To do this requires constant misdirection, selflessness and watchfulness.

The key with Dublin, as with Corofin, is that each player becomes a quarterback. The man in possession doesn't give the immediate pass or shoot on sight. There are no potshots or rushed passes. Instead, he looks up, feints right, then moves left, changes direction, taking him away from the defending player. He uses the dummy, switches the angle of his run. He pauses, before delivering the pass or the shot. This pause and change of direction also gives the man in possession time to see, time to decide, and time to execute the pass or shot. This requires constant work in training and games, but once it becomes a habit within the group, it is extremely difficult to defend against. The defender starts off in the perfect position to defend the obvious pass, but it doesn't come. The man on the ball changes direction, delays the pass, switches the play. This wrong-foots the defenders. They are no longer in a good position. Now they are unsure and confused. Meanwhile, the men not on the ball, knowing the obvious pass wasn't coming, have already switched their runs. They are thinking of the second or third pass. It is a domino effect. Think Corofin's classic goals against Nemo in the 2018 club final or Crokes in this year's final. One minute, the defenders look to be in good shape. The next, they are all over the place and the ball is in the net.

Mayo know the feeling. At the start of the second half of the semi-final they looked in good shape. Then there is a ball to the sideline that would be harmless if a Mayo or Tyrone player was running on to it. The Dublin forward dummies, switches his run. Inside him, his colleagues are doing the same. Suddenly, there is a domino effect. Mayo defenders are running towards their own goal with their backs to the play. Two passes and O'Callaghan is clean through. Goal. Then another. Then another. Their attack efficiency has gone to levels never seen before in Gaelic football. Like Corofin, it is hovering at around 80 per cent.

Like the very greatest teams, they are entirely indifferent to external factors. They are entirely indifferent to adversity. What is important is that watchfulness, that constant focus.

Dublin were four points down against Tyrone in the first quarter of last year's final. Looking at them, they could have been four points up. Which they very soon were, ruthlessly dismantling Tyrone in a 10-minute spell before half-time. Against Mayo in the 2017 final, they went two behind in the 63rd minute and the stadium shook with noise. It was only noise. Within three minutes they were a point up and Mayo hadn't touched the ball, save for their 'keeper. In the 2013 semi-final, Kerry ripped them apart in the first half, scoring three goals. Any other team would have collapsed. Dublin calmly reeled them in. It was an epic game for the supporters, one of the greatest ever. But for the Dubs, it was just a game. By the 69th minute they were level. They went on to win by 3-18 to 3-11, scoring two goals in injury time.

It is not how you start, but how you finish. They are all clutch players. In the 2011 final, substitute Kevin McManamon calmly sidestepped and dummied the Kerry full-back before passing the ball into the net. The goal turned the match on its head. The final act was a long free for Cluxton. Because he is not distracted, he nailed it. For him, it is just a game. He is just a footballer. The bullshit is for the media and the fans. Dublin win. Next?

In that 2013 semi-final against Kerry, it was there for either team as the clock turned to 70 minutes. Against the head, Michael Darragh Macauley hurled himself through the air at the kick-out and flicked it backwards over his shoulder to McManamon, who burst through and finished to the net.

In the 2015 semi-final replay, Paddy Durcan kicked a point to put Mayo four up in the 53th minute, 0-11 to 1-12. In the 53rd minute Mayo were four up. By the 63rd minute, just 10 minutes later, they were seven behind. The Dublin comeback was sealed with a goal . . . from Philly McMahon. Just for good measure, he followed his goal with a point. Not bad for a corner back. A fortnight later in the final against Kerry, it was Dublin’s defence that dominated a dour game, James McCarthy breaking up a last-gasp Kerry attack that might have forced a draw.  

In the epic 2016 semi-final between today’s opponents, with the game level at 2-14 to 0-20 and 72 minutes on the clock, it was Eoghan O’Gara who won it for the Dubs, showing total composure to make an angled run to take the pass, bounce it once to steady himself and get in range, then kick a sweet point off his right foot that sailed straight over the black spot.

In the 2016 replay, Cormac Costello came on in the 58th minute. Between then and the final whistle he had the ball five times. From those five possessions he kicked three nerveless points, the third as he was falling backwards under huge pressure. The kid kicked Dublin’s last three points. The Dubs won it by a single point, 1-15 to 1-14.

In the 2017 semi-final, many people felt Tyrone’s heavy zonal defence would finally stop them. After five minutes, a 19-year-old kid called Con O’Callaghan danced through it, hit the net, and another myth was busted.

In that year’s final, Dean Rock stepped up at the death to kick the winning free from 40 metres, scoring it even though Lee Keegan threw his GPS unit at his feet as he struck the ball.

In last year’s final, Paul Mannion calmly struck the penalty that ended the game, after a delay of almost three minutes between it being granted and taken.

A few weeks ago, Dublin went in at half-time against Mayo two points down. You know the rest.

As for free-taking, here is a statistic: Since the start of the Super 8, Dean Rock has taken 21 frees. He has scored 20 of those, missing only one, taken from the sideline at the very end of the Mayo game. A 95.2 per cent success rate is unheard of in our games.

Dublin senior football used to have a giddy, back-patting, individualistic, celebration-of-mediocrity culture, where it was enough to have a Dublin jersey and a sponsored car. Then Pat Gilroy became manager. After that, there were no dickheads. The culture became selflessness, humility, and working together for a cause greater than the individual or the team. Before they played Kerry in that 2011 final, Bomber Liston was asked if Dublin could win and he said, “The last time Dublin beat us in Croke Park, Elvis was alive.” Everyone in the studio had a good laugh. They weren’t laughing come 5 o’clock.

Jim Gavin inherited the right culture. It was, of course, a culture Jim shared, but Gilroy had given him a head start. The Dublin players trust each other. This is because they know that their team-mate is putting it in just like them. The training. The courage. The selflessness. The humility. I will only trust my team-mate fully if I know he is doing that. In turn he will only trust me. It is why Scully, or O’Callaghan, or Fenton, or Murchan, or Mannion, or Costello slot in without fuss. Without trust, winning big is impossible.

A story. Three years ago after the quarter-final, I was walking past Grogan’s Bar in Dublin with a friend from Mayo and someone shouted my name. I looked over and was surprised to see Michael Darragh, pint in hand, drinking with the Dublin squad. We went over, got a pint and were chatting about this and that. My Mayo friend said to Paul Mannion, “How many All-Irelands do you have Paul?” He said, “Only two.” Cian O’Sullivan rounded on the young man and said “Show some respect Paul. Don’t be a prick.” Mannion, who clearly hadn’t meant to offend, blushed, and apologised profusely. His team-mates left it at that. 

They do not view themselves as heroes or legends or warriors. They would be embarrassed to be described that way. They are simply Dublin footballers, Dublin lads. At Anton O’Toole’s funeral, the entire squad was at the back of the church. I heard afterwards that the players visited him in the hospice and once, when he was well enough, held a small event where they presented him with mementoes. This culture helps to explain their absolute focus during games. When Dean Rock kicked that winning free in 2017, he immediately sprinted to his man to mark him for the kick-out. When Con O’Callaghan scored that immortal goal against Tyrone, he turned and pointed at his forward colleagues to pick up their men. When Scully fisted the goal that killed last year’s final against Tyrone, he ran back to his position and got ready for the next play.

No heroes, no legends, no warriors or any of that old guff. There was a time some years ago when Pat Gilroy wouldn’t have had it any other way. Now, it is the players themselves who won’t have it any other way.

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