Monday 11 December 2017

10 things we've learned from Dublin's run to the National League final

Jack McCaffrey
Jack McCaffrey
Conor McHugh
Dean Rock
John Small
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Jim Gavin's reaction to Dublin's recent League semi-final win over Monaghan told its own story.

Somehow, he reflected, they had got the result, somehow they had found themselves in the final of a competition that, if they weren't avoiding, well they certainly weren't training their lasers on either.

A third successive League title beckons and they'll seize it gratefully from this point but for Dublin this League campaign was never about the trophy and the title.

Gavin has consistently called it a "process." Dublin have spread their net wider, looked at different combinations and gave much more game-time to peripheral players.

We look at some of the conclusions that can be drawn so far:

1) Midfield conundrum

Dublin have started with six different midfield partnerships in their eight games to date.

Denis Bastick has been the common denominator for seven of those games, pairing up with Shane Carthy (twice), Emmett O Conghaile (twice), Tomas Brady, Cian O'Sullivan and Michael Darragh Macauley. Only once, when the Macauley/Brady option was preferred, has he not featured.

Bastick has only finished one of those games - against Cork - but he has performed well, making up ground for last year when he was largely absent through injury and has put himself right back in the picture.

2) Spreading the net wide

Dublin have spread their net wide in this League campaign and used 35 players. Some, like Conor McHugh, Michael Deegan and Philip Ryan have featured just once as substitutes, but for the vast majority there has been between three and eight appearances, with Dean Rock, Kevin McManamon and Johnny Cooper starting every game.

Most Division 1 teams use between 30 and 33 players in a campaign, with Donegal on 28.

3) Making up for lost time

Just over two years ago John Small couldn't make his Ballymun Kickhams club team for the All-Ireland final against St Brigid's. That followed a brief introduction to Pat Gilroy's Dublin squad in 2012.

But Small has rediscovered some of the form that made him such a prospect on Dublin's 2011 minor team. He has played five of the eight games (he was injured for the other three) in the pivotal defensive position, sometimes as the spare defender. He is a live contender in Ger Brennan's continued absence through injury.

4) Rock stability

Of the 35 players Dublin have deployed for League duty, no one has spent more time on the field than Dean Rock, surely a sign that he is a big part of the "process" that Gavin has regularly spoken of. His only withdrawal was against Kerry after 45 minutes, a game he struggled to get into.

Rock has scored 1-41, 0-33 from placed balls, and the value of those returns is reflected in the consistency of his selection.

5) What now for Conor McHugh?

McHugh has lit up the Dublin U-21 team for the last two seasons but his deployment at senior level has amounted to just 13 minutes at the end of the opening League game against Cork.

With Paul Mannion out of the country, Alan Brogan delaying his return and Eoghan O'Gara injured for the last three games, the opportunity to 'run in' McHugh more has been there but hasn't been taken.

In contrast, fellow U-21s Shane Carthy, Cormac Costello, Davy Byrne and Eric Lowndes have all been used more liberally. McHugh is a sublime talent, but does he show too much individualism for the Dublin management's liking?

6) Minding the house better

In all of their nine 2014 League matches, Dublin conceded at least one goal. In the games against Mayo and Cork (semi-final) they conceded two, bringing their total concession to 11 goals.

In this campaign their cover has been breached just twice, against Cork and Monaghan. Six clean sheets is clear evidence of a tighter, more vigilant Dublin, quite happy to drop the numbers back when they have to and even take a black card or two, which they avoided in 2014.

7) Jack's back

It's hard to believe that Jack McCaffrey started just two of Dublin's five Championship games in 2014 and played a full match in just one, while League exposure was even more sparing.

But if an interim Footballer of the Year award was being handed out right now, McCaffrey would be vying for it with Cork's Colm O'Neill. The player that lit up the early and middle parts of 2013 with his blinding pace has found his rhythm again, hitting 1-6 and repeatedly ripping through the blanket cover that so many defences erect against Dublin.

8) Cluxton security

It's an obvious one but Stephen Cluxton's value to Dublin is worth repeating every time. Sean Currie conceded just one goal in his three starts but Kerry's pillaging of the Dublin kick-out in Killarney prompted a swift return for Cluxton and order was restored again.

He has also produced some of his best saves in recent years, his block on Tiernan McCann late in the Tyrone game illustrating a side of his game that had receded somewhat.

The pressure to convert placed balls at the other end has also diminished with Rock's consistent selection, easing the load on hips and knees that need minding after 14 seasons of almost unbroken service.

9) O'Gara leaves a void

So often it's the case that you are only really missed when you are gone. Eoghan O'Gara may have his kicking imperfections but he provides a presence that distracts opposition defences.

Would Dublin have won the 2013 All-Ireland final without his intervention? Ciaran Kilkenny looks best equipped to fill the role and was in the full-forward line the last day against Monaghan.

10) Centre-stage Connolly

Alan Brogan is back in the picture, but after years on the wing Diarmuid Connolly looks set to take centre-stage on the Dublin half-forward line where he has played all four games since his return.

Irish Independent

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