Sport Gaelic Football

Sunday 22 April 2018

Three is the magic number for Dublin

The emergence of ‘fearless’ O’Carroll has finally cured Gilroy’s full-back headache

Rory O'Carroll has been impressive in
this year's Championship for Dublin
Rory O'Carroll has been impressive in this year's Championship for Dublin
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The first few names on Pat Gilroy's team sheet for Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final with Donegal write themselves.

Stephen Cluxton and Bernard and Alan Brogan are surely written down without a thought. After that, form would dictate that Paul Flynn would quickly follow.

But for sheer consistency in a position that has troubled Dublin so often in the recent past, Rory O'Carroll may also be keeping illustrious company in Gilroy's mind.

In only his second season as the team's full-back, O'Carroll already has the cut of a veteran with years of experience behind him.

Between 2006 and 2009, Dublin struck up short-term rental agreements with three different full-backs to fill the vacancy left by the erosion of Paddy Christie's powers after 2005.

Barry Cahill manned the gates through 2006, Ross McConnell had the next two seasons to bed down with only the interruption of injury in the week of the 2008 Leinster final against Wexford when Colin Moran deputised, while Gilroy's first play with the No 3 shirt was to try and mould the abrasive qualities of Denis Bastick in 2009.

Every season ended, however, with the suspicion that each incumbent might be better served elsewhere. The problem remained.

Cue O'Carroll's rapid emergence through the busy nursery out in Glenalbyn, where he caught the eye early in his career as a prospective dual star with Kilmacud Crokes.

Conventional thinking about full-back play in Gaelic football has in the past been based loosely on the assumption that you have to be of a certain age-profile to play the position. A bit like being a prop in rugby, there has been a belief that a long apprenticeship is required before graduation papers can be signed.

O'Carroll has been one of the few to buck that trend. Nothing reflected the maturity in his game more than the manner in which he embraced senior championship club football with Kilmacud Crokes for the first time.

Six points down at half-time in the 2008 Leinster club final against Rhode, a man down after the sending-off of Cian O'Sullivan, the Kilmacud management decided to be radical and threw in the then 19-year-old O'Carroll for his first taste of action at that level.

His first opponent? Niall McNamee, who had earlier torched Paul Griffin for the goal that gave Rhode that 1-6 to 0-3 interval lead. McNamee didn't score again and Crokes won by three points as the gamble paid off.

"Within three months he had an All-Ireland club medal after just one and half hours' of championship football," recalls Kilmacud manager Paddy Carr. "We knew it would be perceived as a gamble to put Rory in on Niall McNamee, but we had full confidence in him. The old saying 'if you're good enough, you're old enough' applied here."

By the following March, he was embedded in Gilroy's squad and his first exposure to action had him pitted -- for a few minutes -- against Colm Cooper at the end of a drawn league match at Parnell Park when he came on for David Henry as a blood substitute.

That summer he made his championship debut at corner-back against Westmeath but on a day when Dublin were 4-26 to 0-11 winners, O'Carroll and fellow corner-back David Henry came in for some mild criticism for their failure to tie down their opponents Conor Lynam and John Connellan.

Within a few days, he had made up his mind to spend the rest of the summer travelling through Asia with friends. On the cusp of a Leinster final with Kildare, he informed Gilroy of a decision that seemed strange and out of the blue and perhaps reflected a young man who could take his sport or leave it.

Months later he would explain a feeling of "burnout" after his commitments to club, college and county senior and U-21 hurling and football teams.

But his decision to go also illustrated a single-mindedness in him, a conviction that is bound up in the way he plays. He does things on his terms.

Dave Billings, the former Dublin selector who looks after GAA affairs in UCD, notes that when "Rory is with you, he's with you all the way", a trait he says also applies to O'Carroll's brothers Ross (current Dublin senior footballer) and Bill (U-21 hurling corner-back)

And to Carr, O'Carroll is an "uncomplicated lad who just gets on with it," perhaps a reflection of his southside upbringing where Gaelic games are pastimes, not obsessions, and the tradition and convention of the games are an irrelevance. "He plays with absolutely no fear. He plays with a freedom in his heart," says Carr.

Gilroy knew the value of the player and put the Asian sojourn behind him as he mapped O'Carroll out as a lynchpin of his reconstructed defence after the traumatic All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Kerry in 2009.

He had his unnerving moments, particularly against Meath in last year's Leinster semi-final when Dublin shipped five goals. But internally the light did not shine on O'Carroll or his equally inexperienced corner-backs Mick Fitzsimons and Philly McMahon. Instead the buck stopped further out the field with those who had offered so little protection.

Gilroy kept faith in the trio and was rewarded with a security system that didn't fail until the latter stages of last year's All-Ireland semi-final with Cork.

A modern full-back in a modern system he may be, but Carr sees old full-back values in him. "He's a great fielder of the ball. He spreads himself especially well and he knows how to get his body across an opponent," he says.

This season he has picked up where he left off last year and hardly seemed hindered by his absence from the game through a work placement in France for seven months, during which he taught English outside the city of Orleans as part of his French studies at UCD.

The downside to his commitment to the Dublin footballers is that hurling has had to fall by the wayside. To some it's a game he's even more comfortable with, but last year's involvement with the U-21 hurlers in the Leinster final and subsequent All-Ireland semi-final against Galway was prevented because of the proximity of senior football championship games, a decision described at the time by Anthony Daly as "ridiculous".

On Sunday, O'Carroll will be flanked in the full-back line by two fellow well- spoken southsiders, Fitzsimons from Cuala and his own clubmate O'Sullivan. It's an indication of where Dublin GAA is spreading itself, that it can come up with such a combination for enforcement purposes. But appearances and addresses are deceptive.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport