Friday 20 April 2018

Defence best form of attack

Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

BEFORE last weekend's All-Ireland semi-final, the championship's top 10 scorers had a distinctly unfamiliar look to it.

Not only because it was topped by a Wexford man (Ben Brosnan) and rounded off by a Longford player (Sean McCormack), but the likes of Colm Cooper and Bernard Brogan were conspicuous by their absence.

In fact, none of the four sides left in the championship at that stage had a representative in the top 10. Cooper's 1-7 against Mayo has since pushed him to joint second, while Brogan needs four points to be in the reckoning and Donegal's leading forward Colm McFadden will need eight to make the list.

It points to a renewed emphasis on defence that even the top sides have turned to. Kerry are renowned for their forward talent, but they conceded fewer points (89) than any team in the top tier of the league this year, with Dublin back in third (110).

Extend that to Division 2 and the Kingdom were bettered by only Donegal, Dublin's opponents on Sunday (87).


Given some of the ignominious demises Dublin and Donegal have endured in recent years, they could hardly be blamed for putting the emphasis on getting their rearguards in order.

Pat Gilroy has carried out a comprehensive overhaul of Dublin's personnel and tactics -- not one defender in the 15 for the "startled earwigs" game (the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry) started in defence for the recent win over Tyrone.

That 2009 defeat was a sea-change for Dublin, who had played some sublime football up to that point, winning five successive Leinster titles.

And while their provincial form has been less spectacular since then, the new system has proved more effective against the top sides as the Dubs face into their second successive All-Ireland semi-final appearance.

"I suppose that was a criticism of ours," Dublin attacker Alan Brogan said last month of the switch of emphasis.

"We were great going forward, we got lots of scores, but ultimately when it came to the really big matches we conceded too much to win the games.

"We certainly had to change the way we played a little bit and there was a lot more defensive duties put on the forwards, but looking at it now it definitely worked."

Donegal's story is similar. They hadn't won an Ulster championship game in four years, but through the organisation and the promptings of Jim McGuinness, they became only the second team in 66 years to win Ulster after playing in the preliminary round. They also landed the Division 2 title.

"When I was doing interviews one-to-one with them at the beginning of the year when I took the job, the senior players were saying, 'I know I'm not playing well myself and the team's not playing well'," McGuinness recalled.

"I heard that message maybe three or four times and there's a voice going off in your head saying, 'maybe these fellas are not in a great place'."

Like Gilroy, McGuinness had realised that first and foremost, his side had to be hard to beat. Their style has drawn widespread criticism, particularly in the early rounds, but their dramatic win over Kildare has earned them new admirers.

"They have built up to this level now and we're not carrying any psychological baggage from heavy defeats that would have happened in the last few years," said the manager.

"I think that a lot of it is washed away and they're just playing football now. I'm so happy for them because they have come through such a hard journey in the last couple of years, it's great for them now to be going into an All-Ireland semi-final with two medals (league and Ulster championship) in their back pockets.

"They work so hard, they empty it every single night and they are going to go into the game, play the game, deliver for their county -- that's all we've ever asked of them. Somebody is going to win, somebody's going to lose, but if it's us that loses there will be no negatives."

Of course it's not to everyone's taste. Paddy Cullen was the Dubs manager in 1992 when Donegal recorded their only championship win over the Sky Blues in that year's final. He believes that his Dublin side contained more 'natural footballers' than the current team.

"It must be a very difficult thing to actually work out where somebody is going to be at a given time. Is he my man, is he your man? -- the blame game has gone out of it now," Cullen said. "I would say there (were more natural footballers on the '92 team) but natural footballers don't count any more, I don't think. You need the strikers, to take the term from a foreign game -- the fellas like Bernard Brogan, who has emerged as a super striker, like the Gooch, McFadden's not bad, (Michael) Murphy's not bad.

"The feeding of the ball just takes too long for my liking to get up to the forwards."

But Dublin and Donegal have shown defence is the best form of attack when it comes to an assault on Sam Maguire.

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