Friday 27 April 2018

Abundance of talent leaves Jim Gavin facing big decisions

Dublin 9-139 The Rest 5-106

The emergence of players like Jack McCaffrey underlines the emphasis Jim Gavin has put on speed
The emergence of players like Jack McCaffrey underlines the emphasis Jim Gavin has put on speed

Colm Keyes

It's a scoreline that makes for impressive reading at the end of a first league campaign for the new Dublin manager.

Mirroring the success of Dubs predecessors Gerry McCaul (1987), Paddy Cullen (1991) and Pat O'Neill (1993), who also took league titles at their first attempt, Jim Gavin couldn't have really asked for much more from a nine-match campaign that gave them an average of five points to spare in each game.

With "a piece of tin," as he casually described the league trophy, collared for their efforts, Gavin could also reflect on a sequence of games that very much underpinned his own convictions about how the game should be played and who should execute those convictions.

It has been a most admirable approach – one that will surely draw widespread approval as the season progresses – to move away from the propensity for 'defence first' and play the open, attractive brand he espoused very early into his reign.


Should they justify the ever-shortening odds they carry as All-Ireland favourites, it will mark another significant shift in emphasis for Gaelic football.

While Donegal and Dublin evolved in their second seasons – it was technically Pat Gilroy's third but a line was firmly drawn under 2009, when they were destroyed by Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final – to win All-Ireland titles, their success over the last two years was very much predicated on almost every man being a defender first.

Cork didn't adopt the same level of 'defence first' strategy in 2010 but their All-Ireland win was a triumph for power and athleticism as much as anything else.

Gavin hasn't hidden his desire to develop a style of play that clearly moves away from the modus operandi of the champions of the last three years.

But even with a league title secured, 36 players rolled out and good shape on the probable personnel, it's a philosophy that still represents a gamble as they steer the ship out towards the shark-infested waters of the championship.

Donegal are the benchmark so it's worth considering this – they were relegated with an average rate of concession (12.4 points per game) over their seven games that was a full point less than Dublin's average rate of concession (13.4) over nine games. Both Donegal and Dublin kept Kerry and Down to a single-figure quantity of points.

A mitigating factor is that seven of Dublin's games were played at Croke Park, where the rate of scoring is inevitably higher because of the quality and speed of the surface.

But, by essentially defending man for man, Dublin are placing a much greater onus of responsibility for each defender to win his own battle.

It's a shift from the command of space preferred by the previous regime, a system that was tailored for Ger Brennan to sit back, sweep and control, which he did to such telling effect.

But, in isolation, Brennan looked vulnerable against Sean Cavanagh last Sunday – just as the entire defence did at times against Mayo two weeks earlier – and it's an area that will demand a rethink in the weeks ahead.

The choice of midfield pairing will also require careful consideration. Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O'Sullivan started together in four of the nine games, including the last three, but is O'Sullivan more suited to centre-back with the man-for-man approach in mind?

To execute his philosophy, Gavin has consistently picked players equipped to play with speed. Hence the selection of Darren Daly, Jack McCaffrey, O'Sullivan, Paddy Andrews and Kevin O'Brien in each of the nine games.

The victory over Tyrone has perhaps opened up more debate about the most likely championship team than it has concluded.

With Alan Brogan, Kevin Nolan, Eoghan O'Gara and Rory O'Carroll not featuring last Sunday, it represents a strength in depth that no other team can come close to falling back on.

Back in March, Gavin openly admitted that Ballymun players were losing ground because of a lack of game time, but in the most recent matches Philly McMahon and James McCarthy, the 36th player to be used after his selection for Sunday's final, have staked strong claims.

Dean Rock also served notice of his finishing power, justifying the biggest call of Gavin's short time in charge with the withdrawal of a below-par Bernard Brogan.


Once again Gavin's own conviction is evident – just as it is with the persistence with and consequent form of Johnny Cooper and Andrews – in the chance given to Rock, who figured well down the pecking order during Gilroy's time.

Significantly, Rock's introduction ensured that of the 20 players used, five of them were sons of fathers who had represented Dublin at the highest level and with much distinction in the past.

The presence of Rock, McCarthy, Brogan, McCaffrey and Kevin McManamon, whose father Maxi also featured for Dublin at various stages in the past, made a mockery of predictions that Dublin's dominance in the future would be based on population scales and migration from the country.

Could any other county team boast a similar lineage that occupied 25pc of the playing personnel in any league game? Tradition as much as anything else is playing a big part in their progression.

So too is a basic strategy of preparing yourself to the optimum and outscoring your opponents to win a match with the best footballers available to you. Is it really that straight forward?

Irish Independent

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