Monday 11 December 2017

Mid-Summer Nightmare

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

THE last time, prior to last Sunday, that Dublin conceded five goals in the Leinster championship, there were no defined team managers, no post-match interviews and no detailed analysis.

But then, it's all of 81 years ago since Laois hit Dublin for 5-5 in a Leinster semi-final in Athy. Dublin countered with 3-10, leaving them just a point short, so if Dublin did have a specialist team manager, he would no doubt have faced the media with a tale of how they were unlucky not to get a second chance.

Pat Gilroy had no such comforting insulation in the interview room under the Cusack Stand last Sunday. He did, however, have something the 1929 team mentors didn't -- a chance to relaunch the championship season 13 days later.

Which is just as well because, coming after the 17-point wipeout against Kerry last August, it would have been utterly disastrous for Dublin football if their sign-off game for the year featured a five-goal giveaway.

"Dublin would have felt in the past couple of years that we didn't have a chance to rectify bad performances until the following year," said Gilroy. "Now the question is going to be asked of us and we'll see if we've got the answer. I'd be very confident. That group doesn't feel like they did themselves justice and I think in two weeks' time we should get a good reaction."

He didn't know at that stage that the draw would be a whole lot kinder to them than it might have been. For while Tipperary are improving, Dublin would still have much preferred to draw them in Croke Park than being forced to travel to Crossmaglen, Celtic Park or some other country venue populated by re-energised first-round qualifier winners.

Last Sunday's defeat has changed things in Dublin. Whereas the philosophical question among the football fraternity in recent years centred on whether the team would be better off in the qualifiers rather than continuing to win moderate Leinster championships, it's now down to raw reality.

The humiliation by Kerry last August, followed by the grim survival effort against Wexford, which had more to do with the latter's lack of self-confidence than Dublin's enterprise, and now the five-goal leak against Meath has left Dublin weaker psychologically than at any time since before the start of the 'Heffo' era in 1974.

That's quite a predicament and should lead to serious self-analysis at county board level as to why they are not producing better players. However, that's an off-season project and has no relevance to how Gilroy will proceed with the relaunch effort in the qualifiers.

One of the more remarkable aspects of Dublin's season so far is that they would probably have been better off not going so well in the National Football League.

Winning games should never be a drawback but, in Dublin's case, how much of an advantage was it? Five wins from seven games (they lost to Cork and Galway only) and the joint best defensive record in Division 1 (shared, ironically, with Mayo who are now out of the championship) generated a lovely warm glow heading into the championship.

New faces and a revised approach to defence, based on getting more players behind the ball, appeared to have bedded in well and while Gilroy kept warning of the need for patience, there was a degree of giddiness in the Dublin air after the league.

It lasted around 15 minutes into their first championship game, by which time Wexford had dismantled the new model, prompting Dublin to revert to more traditional methods.

They survived after extra-time but not without a casualty. The management's belief in the system that had looked so promising in the league was gone. With it went team captain, David Henry, whose new role was ostensibly as a half-forward but, in reality, he was more of an enforcer for the new strategy.


Suddenly, Dublin were in very dangerous territory, despatching a new defence, which had been constructed on the basis it would have Henry dropping back to help out, into a one-on-one formation with no extra back-up. The result? More free channels than Meath could ever have hoped for, with Stephen Bray (twice), Cian Ward, Joe Sheridan and Brian Farrell burrowing in for goals.

Now, Gilroy is facing the defining challenge of his managerial career. In a pre-championship interview with the Irish Independent, he identified a lower concession rate as crucial to Dublin's prospects of making real progress.

"In the last two years, we conceded big scores in our last games in the championship, so looking at ways of defending better was a priority," he said.

He also explained that a great deal of time had been invested in analysing exactly what went wrong against Kerry last August, but said the results weren't for public consumption.

"We think we learned from that defeat but time will tell," he said. They certainly appeared to have adopted some helpful tricks during the league, but that's so far away now as to be completely irrelevant.

So what does Gilroy do now? Attempt to modify the defensive system which applied in the league and hope it will fare better than it did against Wexford? Or work off the one-on-one framework which proved so brittle last Sunday?

Of course, all the problems weren't in defence. Ciaran Whelan's absence was really noticed at midfield last Sunday, while the attack misfired badly, although it did improve when Eoghan O'Gara and Kevin McManamon came on. By then though, the game really was up.

Early July wasn't supposed to be like this in Dublin. The Meath game was always going to be tricky, but a narrow defeat was the very worst that Dublin would have expected. Instead, the underlying issues, if not the actual margin, were every bit as serious as those that surrounded the defeat by Kerry last year.

Truly, a testing time for Gilroy, his players and the broader Dublin GAA community.

Pre-championship, Gilroy outlined his version of what would represent progress this year.

"It would be that whenever we leave the championship, we'll have given a very good performance. That's what we'll need to do -- we can't have another capitulation as we have had for the last two years."

Last Sunday's mess was almost as grim as the surrender against Kerry but, at least this time, Dublin have a chance to correct it. How they go about it is anybody's guess.

Indeed, even for the management it's very much a guessing game now as the experiments of the first six months of the year have yielded nothing but uncertainty.

Irish Independent

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