Monday 23 September 2019

Pat Spillane: Three key back-room battles that will decide if Sam Maguire goes to Dublin or Kerry

Brian Fenton of Dublin in action against Paul Geaney of Kerry during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match at Austin Stack Park in Tralee last February. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Brian Fenton of Dublin in action against Paul Geaney of Kerry during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match at Austin Stack Park in Tralee last February. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

Physically, the week leading up to an All-Ireland final is a doddle for the players. But mentally it's torture. I hated every minute of it.

Time moves slowly and sleep doesn't come easily.

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I remember spending hours staring at the ceiling thinking about the match. I tried to avoid as much human contact as possible in case they wanted to talk about the game or were looking for tickets.

Answering the phone was out of the question in case it was a journalist looking for quotes.

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Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Kerry manager Peter Keane exchange a handshake after the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 3 match at Austin Stack Park in Tralee last Febuary. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Thankfully, there were no mobile phones or social media in my day.

Meanwhile, for the team managers and their close advisers, this is when they earn their corn.

They have to select their team and fine-tune a game plan designed to secure the biggest prize in Irish sport.

The three areas they will focus on are team selection, tactics and match-ups.

TEAM SELECTION

Dublin: Expect no shocks, though Dublin will probably go through the charade of releasing a dummy team less than 24 hours before throw-in.

It is almost certain that barring late injuries, Jim Gavin will select 14 of the players that started against Mayo.

He will have to choose between David Byrne and Cian O'Sullivan for one defensive berth.

During the first half against Mayo the Dublin management team appeared preoccupied with who should be the sweeper.

Jason Sherlock was constantly on the field issuing instructions. Several players, including wing-forward Niall Scully, filled the role.

My instinct is that Gavin opts for O'Sullivan for two reasons. Byrne's performance against Mayo was less than convincing.

But, more importantly, given the threat posed by David Clifford and Paul Geaney, Dublin will deploy a sweeper and O'Sullivan is best qualified to fill this role.

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Eoin O'Donoghue of Mayo and Cian O'Sullivan of Dublin tussle during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
He surprised many by leaving out Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O'Gara and Rory O'Carroll against Mayo and including Diarmuid Connolly, whose desire to play in Boston this summer didn't suggest he was very committed to the Dubs' cause.

Don't judge Gavin by that smiley face. Behind that peak cap lurks a ruthless manager who doesn't allow sentiment cloud his thoughts.

Very few authentic stories leak out of the Dublin camp.

But I was told months ago that it was intimated to both Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan that at best they would have a peripheral role in this year's championship.

Flynn opted to retire but Brogan decided to stay and fight his corner.

He got game time in the meaningless Super 8 tie against Tyrone but for the second year in a row it doesn't look like Brogan will make the squad on All-Ireland final day.

From a football perspective, Gavin's decision to include Connolly was entirely justified. The bottom line is that a manager should always select the best players and Connolly's skill-set is not matched by any other member of the squad.

He has wonderful vision, is a brilliant long-range foot-passer and can kick long-range points.

Nevertheless, I don't expect him to feature in the final unless Dublin needs bailing out.

After all, even though the semi-final was over as a contest long before the end, Connolly had to wait until injury time until he was introduced.

But such is the level of competition for places in that 26-man squad, I expect the A versus B games were very tasty, which was just what the manager wanted.

Kerry: In contrast to the Dublin team selection meeting, the Kerry one will be long and difficult.

The impact Jack Sherwood and Tommy Walsh made when they came off the bench against Tyrone has given the selectors plenty of food for thought.

David Moran, who has been a revelation this season, will obviously fill the No 8 shirt.

But it is the identity of his partner, who will have the job of curbing the threat of Brian Fenton, which will preoccupy the Kerry brains trust.

Jack Barry looked tailor-made for the role, having done two effective man-marking jobs on Fenton in the 2017 league tie and later in the final.

Unfortunately for Kerry he has been struggling with injuries this year and probably hasn't played enough football to be risked.

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Brian Howard of Dublin is chased down by (from left) Kerry’s Jack Barry, Tadhg Morley, Paul Murphy and Jack Sherwood in Tralee. Photo: Sportsfile
Sherwood is a more natural defender, having played at full-back during the league.

Having said that, he impressed when coming off the bench and playing at midfield in the championship.

His direct running could cause problems for the Dublin defence. The third candidate for the No 9 shirt is Adrian Spillane.

I have to confess a personal interest here as Adrian is my nephew.

He didn't have the best of games against Tyrone. But he has a lot to offer in terms of huge work rate, athleticism and energy. 

It might be enough to convince Keane to give him the role of shadowing Fenton.

Tommy Walsh's impact against Tyrone has given the selectors an interesting dilemma.

He provided another outlet for Kerry's attacks, which eased the pressure on David Clifford and Paul Geaney.

He brought calmness to the Kerry play and linked up well with the rest of the forwards. But given his relative lack of championship minutes this summer there are question marks over whether he would last a full match.

So Kerry will probably keep him in reserve for when they launch Plan B, which will involve an aerial bombardment of the Dublin full-back line.

Elsewhere, pace will dictate the selection policy with Jason Foley and Brian Ó Beaglaoich keeping their places and team captain Gavin White replacing Shane Enright.

TACTICS

Dublin: I'm not too sure Jim Gavin gets too hung up on tactics.

Unlike the painting-by-numbers approach so beloved by Mickey Harte, whose players are programmed to play in a certain way and cannot change tack, Dublin are more flexible and adaptable.

Gavin uses the word empowerment, quite often which essentially means he allows players to take the lead once they cross the white line.

Their game intelligence and composure means they are the best in the business at sensing when they need to adapt and change tack.

Of course, they still use tactics such as the deployment of a sweeper, the full-court press they apply on the opposition kick-outs and getting their designated kickers on the ball when they're within scoring range inside the opposition's D.

Kerry: Getting a workable defensive system in place will have preoccupied Kerry, both on the training ground and in the boardroom since the semi-final.

The deployment of Paul Murphy as a sweeper against Tyrone in the first half failed spectacularly.

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Kerry's Paul Murphy. Photo: Sportsfile
Had the Dublin forwards been given the same freedom as their Tyrone counterparts were, the game would have been over at half-time.

My instincts are that Kerry will opt against deploying a designated sweeper and to go man on man.

For starters, they don't have a player with the requisite skills to do the job and, secondly, it requires months – maybe even years –of work on the training ground to get this system right.

It cannot be done in three weeks.Instead they will press high up the field and, where practical, put huge pressure on Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs.

They will pressurise not just the Dublin ball-carriers but the support runners as well and, most importantly, they will flood their D sector with bodies.

The mantra will be work rate, work rate and work rate.Up front Kerry will deploy a two-man full-forward line with the third player operating on the apex of a triangle, and the trio will alternate roles.

MATCH-UPS

Dublin: Their specialist man-markers Jonny Cooper and Mick Fitzsimons will pick up Clifford and Geaney respectively.

John Small is likely to have the job of tracking Stephen O'Brien, having done an effective job in last year's final on Peter Harte.

Kerry: It is imperative that Peter Keane gets this right. They will take something from the Mayo playbook because they got it right up to half-time. 

Tom O'Sullivan has proved his value as a man-marker this season. 

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Tom O'Sullivan of Kerry celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Kerry at Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
He completely blotted out the threat of Peter Harte in the semi-final but he faces an even bigger challenge in the final against Con O'Callaghan.

Foley will pick up Paul Mannion with Tadgh Morley aiming to keep Ciaran Kilkenny as quiet as he did in the 2018 league final.

But match-ups are also about trying to dictate the pattern of the game.

A classic example was Paddy Durcan forcing Jack McCaffrey to concentrate on his defensive duties in the first half of the semi-final.

O'Brien could do likewise next Sunday. Mind you, all is easier said than done. 

Things can change in the white heat of battle. Kilkenny hurlers discovered this last weekend when the dismissal of Richie Hogan sent them into an unstoppable tailspin.

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