Tuesday 24 October 2017

System Failure

Gilroy faced with brave calls after Wexford fiasco puts blueprint under sharp focus, writes Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Pat Gilroy has courage. If he didn't have it, he wouldn't have put himself in the picture for the Dublin football job in the first place. He'd have ran a million miles from it.

A relatively young man with no real previous football management experience was taking a massive punt on what he was letting himself in for, regardless of who he was surrounding himself with or what structures he was putting in place. As one of his predecessors once remarked it is the 'biggest gig' around.

His courage is also reflected in what he has sought to do with the Dublin football team over the last few months. After back-to-back humiliations in All-Ireland quarter-finals there was no option. He had to attempt to make Dublin more difficult to beat.

So, Gilroy has become midwife to a new style that has been heavy on defence. In Dublin training sessions -- and there have been plenty of those -- the tackle has become king, the ticket to greater things.

The early evidence suggested the birth would be easier than anticipated. Wins on the road against Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo augured well for the new blueprint and a clear system took shape.

Players had to sacrifice the games they were more comfortable with. The piano players had to become piano lifters to borrow that well-known French rugby metaphor.

Reputations suffered in the search for a different way. Bernard Brogan had his tracksuit top on for most of the first three games before the management decided that there isn't another way without him. The efforts to retain Conal Keaney exclusively for football weren't reflected in the game time he was given in the league. And Alan Brogan, injuries apart, was certainly made feel that the world no longer revolved around him.

The brave new world took transplants from other systems to create a new hybrid. The template mirrored most was that deployed by Mickey Harte, a template that made Tyrone extremely difficult to beat with numbers tracking back into defence and licence to strike fast and furiously on the break.

That game requires discipline and energy, but it also requires intelligence. Ryan McMenamin, Philip Jordan, Conor Gormley, Brian Dooher, Davy Harte and before him, for a brief period, Gavin Devlin are and were among the most intelligent footballers in the game. Watch them build moves from the back, the exploitation of space, the patience involved, the composure in possession.

Do enough of the current Dublin footballers have the intelligence to bring this type of game to its fruition? On the evidence of Sunday, they don't.

True it may take a lot more time to bed down and for players to become more familiar with it in the white heat of the championship, especially in Croke Park. And Gilroy has been at pains to highlight the possible collateral damage involved.

But Sunday's first-half display was so bad, so lacking in direction and results that it really needs to be addressed instantly. There wasn't a shred of evidence that the system deployed in the league and recent challenge matches worked in any way.

What can legislate for a player at the peak of his fitness and maturity as David Henry being so anonymous for so long?

Hesitation

Too often the man in possession coming out of defence saw nothing in front of him, but green grass and purple and gold jerseys. That caused hesitation and ultimately panic, the nett result being the loss of possession.

The fact that they kept playing to this system even as Wexford threatened to disappear over the horizon in that first half smacks of a team too fearful to take matters into their own hands and a sideline not flexible enough to make such systematic changes on the run.

Admittedly, those changes were made after half-time and a more orthodox structure was put in place. Eventually Dublin did thrive with established names serving the cause so well.

Keaney, Alan Brogan, Mossie Quinn and Bryan Cullen are not washed up after all and the management must surely wonder now if they were better off asking old dogs to perform new tricks at the start of this year.

If Quinn and Cullen can still contribute, the management must now wonder if others who flew the nest had something to offer too. Some of the personnel Dublin have trusted to fill their places are either not up to it, or have sufficient chinks in their armour to render them liabilities.

When a team finishes normal time with 13 players, discipline, or lack of it, has to be an issue, particularly when the two players red carded can be classed as repeat offenders.

Ger Brennan's last game for Dublin in Croke Park against Kildare in the Leinster final resulted in an early dismissal for a striking offence. On Sunday it was two yellow cards that forced him out almost at the end of normal time.

Denis Bastick went 13 minutes earlier for his crude bowling over of Redmond Barry as he chased a ball. There was little point to what Bastick did, just as there was little point to his equally crude attempt to stamp on Kieran Donaghy's foot in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final humiliation against Kerry.

Donaghy was 'maor uisce' on the day, Bastick took exception to his presence on the field and he was retrospectively banned for four weeks, a suspension that will now double and preclude him until an All-Ireland semi-final at the earliest.

Brennan and Bastick are supposed to bring a certain combativeness and physical edge to Dublin, a steel that they have been previously missing. But the balance between what they bring and what they risk is wrong, creating too great a risk.

Gilroy has been brave before in taking the job on and then trying to change it. Not everything is awry. The young full-back line looks like one that can be trusted and that's a healthy start. Cian O'Sullivan was an obvious loss.

But other decisions are going to have to require greater bravery and the admission that some of the things attempted will most likely not succeed. Dublin football teams are simply not genetically geared for all-out defence and it was only when Alan Brogan produced a piece of initiative in the 52nd minute that the crowd reconnected. And they need the crowd.

It's not too late to go back to Shane Ryan and/or Ciaran Whelan just as it wasn't too late for Jack O'Connor to go back to Mike McCarthy 12 months ago.

To go forward Dublin will surely have to go back -- but only to some old values and personnel. That would be the bravest call of all.

Irish Independent

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