Friday 24 November 2017

O'Neill wary of 'psychological' battle for Dubs

Pat O'Neill believes Dublin will need luck in running to regain Sam, writes Conor McGee

Before their recent Leinster dominance, the last time Dublin had won a succession of provincial titles and not followed up by bringing home the Sam Maguire was a run of Leinsters from 1932 to 1935. Over a period of 70 years, the Dubs never won consecutive Leinster titles without going all the way after at least one.

In 2005, Dublin embarked on a run of five consecutive provincial titles without even contesting an All-Ireland final.

The introduction of the qualifiers is certainly a factor in this, as perhaps is a lowering of quality in the Leinster championship -- Meath's win in 1999 was the last by a team from Leinster, and it's the longest spell the Sam Maguire has been outside the province since Dublin ended a 13-year drought in 1942.

Dr Pat O'Neill was the last manager to lead Dublin to an All-Ireland victory, in 1995, an introduction he didn't see lasting quite as long as it has.

"I suppose it is getting a little bit repetitive at this stage," he says. "I certainly didn't anticipate it the day we decided that we weren't going to continue. My belief was that they would probably be back there again the next year. But we're now 16 years down the road. There have been opportunities to change that, but it hasn't happened."

Dublin have consistently impressed in the provincial championship, only to falter later on. Since 2004 they've been ever-present at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, making it to the semi-finals on three occasions, but no further.

"That has to be a psychological problem, I believe. Whether a failure of confidence or not reading the situation. When you're playing at that top level, one of the major things is to have a certain amount of fear. From my own days involved, there was always an element of apprehension and fear about your opposite number and for the opposition as a whole, no matter if they were favourites or not. And I just wonder is that an issue."

The psychological problems in question were never clearer than in the two most recent defeats to Cork. "I think you have to look at it as Dublin losing the matches rather than Cork winning them," says O'Neill. "If you take the final of the league, which is an important competition -- it was important for Cork and it was very important for Dublin. An eight-point lead in a football match with 25 minutes to go is a big lead, and particularly because nothing catastrophic happened in terms of leaked goals or two goals to get back into it. To concede nine points, that's a lot of football."

O'Neill, who was part of the Dublin side that won three All-Ireland titles in the 1970s, was lucky enough to be involved with plenty of iconic Dublin figures such as Jimmy Keaveney, Brian Mullins and manager Kevin Heffernan. There was a fair share of icons on the side he oversaw as well -- the likes of Dessie Farrell, Keith Barr and Charlie Redmond among others. Could there be a lack of that kind of leadership in the current crop?

"I suppose that bravery and confidence to go at it, yes I'd agree that there does seem to be individuals of that calibre missing from the current squad. Anybody would have to be impressed by the goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton. He's very impressive, but there's a limit to what a goalkeeper can do. The type of leadership that's required in those critical end stages of the game, to nail it down, needs to be outfield. Bryan Cullen is another man. Having him as captain is a positive factor.

"I think the Brogans are alright, but they tend to lead by their own activity rather than a collective activity of getting others moving, and I think that's a talent in itself that seems to be missing.

"Somebody can actually be a tremendous leader in a match or on a team, and they mightn't be playing that well themselves at all but they do get the best out of those around them. I don't know if that's an issue. You only know that if you're on the inside of the situation."

O'Neill believes the Dubs' full-back line has been an important improvement this year, but facing Wexford will be their sternest test so far.

"Wexford seem to have a very good full-forward line. They've been very impressive in the matches that they've played and I've been very impressed with their strategy and their ability to kick scores. You'd have to say that this is a team that has improved and evolved from what was not a bad position a few years ago. So it'll be Dublin's big Leinster test but I don't know if it'll be the test supreme that they would get from say the Cork or especially the Kerry full-forward line, which was very impressive in the match in Killarney."

In contrast to the hard-working possession-focused game that has become almost omnipresent in recent years, O'Neill favours a different style of football.

"The current game has everybody moving in a major dynamic, which is quite demanding on the physiological energies. The game was more fixed and the ball was asked to do more work in those years [in the '70s]. When I was involved in the management of it there was a tendency to go to this high work-rate as well.

"I must say I wasn't impressed with it. I took some time, years, to try and get rid of that and get back to the ball doing the work. And it was ultimately the main contributor to that team eventually just about getting over the line. But one of the things there, particularly in a place the size of Croke Park, was to get early delivery of the ball towards the spaces in the forward line."

Like we saw in Killarney last weekend?

"Exactly. I think that that attractive game of football gives for a great entertaining game and I think it is a brilliant game when you get the strategy worked out.

"I think there has been, since Pat Gilroy took over, a tendency to try and get that game going again, but there is still this high carry-rate and working it out. It's very labour-intensive and it's not attractive. It's probably safe but I would question, is it a winning strategy."

Despite their dominance in Leinster, it's worth remembering that six of Dublin's starting side for today's final against Wexford have never made a victorious Leinster final appearance. But O'Neill tips Dublin to win by six points today -- "I'd say there'll be disappointment if there isn't that in it" -- but the real question is, win or lose, can they make progress in the All-Ireland series?

"Dublin's chances are the same as they were last year, which were very high as they have been the last couple of years. Except these blips have occurred at the penultimate stages and I think where the focus has to be is to prevent these issues occurring.

"They have to be in the top four, and maybe even the top three. Kerry are probably gone in front now, Cork are there, Dublin are there. I think Kildare have not gone away. There'll have to be a bit of luck as well, but it's hard to think that luck has gone against them in the games that they've lost."

"The full-back line has definitely improved, that was certainly a problem when it was leaking and there's no doubt about that. And I think at times they are moving the ball forward much quicker and at greater distances. And that will add to the potential for them to get over the line."

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