Monday 19 February 2018

Ciarán Whelan: Winning the replay against Mayo will undoubtedly be Jim Gavin’s greatest test in management

Dublin manager Jim Gavin
Dublin manager Jim Gavin

Ciarán Whelan

While it may not live long in the memory as a sporting spectacle, last Sunday’s drawn All-Ireland final was enthralling.

The intensity of the game was frightening. In between the errors – largely due to the conditions – the physicality and pace of the game was spellbinding.  Players drained themselves not only physically but mentally. 

With weeks of preparation and every level of detail covered, Mayo brought an edge to Croke Park that we had not seen before. The finger prints of Tony McEntee were all over it. They had a steeliness that you would have associated with the Armagh team of 2002 or the Tyrone team that emerged in 2003. They came to bully Dublin. They had already bullied Tyrone.

Did Dublin underestimate the challenge? Possibly.

Is the replay the biggest test of Dublin’s resolve and Jim Gavin’s management? Certainly it is.

To their credit, both set of players put their bodies on the line. If it was a game of snakes and ladders, they both caught the big snake a couple of spaces from the end. They have both slid back to the start.

Sunday is history. A day like that will never happen again. While physical fitness can be measured and monitored, the same cannot be said for mental fitness.

That is where the challenge lies for the players and management. They need to come down before they can rise to the occasion again.

I can only imagine what life is now like for the modern inter-county footballer. Six or seven years ago, it was relatively easy to get away from the scrutiny and hype in the build-up to any big game. Once you avoided the mainstream print media or made it your business to miss the main news bulletins, you were quids in.

Nowadays, it must be nigh impossible for the players to switch off from the outside world. Social media is now infested by comment and opinions on every facet of the game.  The general supporter on the ground now has access directly to players and can hide behind Twitter handles. Every media outlet has a podcast to dissect the performance of each team in great detail.

Online media channels will latch onto any story, any adverse comment, or even a still image of a player pulling a jersey just to create a headline. In the build-up to an All-Ireland final, it goes into overdrive, with individual player statistics and trends spread like the gospel.

Whilst it may appear from the outside that the players have gone to ground, it is an impossible environment for them. Do all the players lock their smartphones away for two weeks? Not a chance they do!  They have to learn to deal with it and some will cope better than others.

Within the Dublin camp, there will be some soul- searching this week. Searching for honesty.  Trying to put a finger on why their performance level dropped. Last Sunday will feel like a loss to the Dublin players, which can be good thing when honestly dissecting a game as a team.

I wrote last week that I sensed complacency around the county and it made me nervous. This team has had plaudits thrown at them all year. 

Idle talk

Not just from within Dublin but also from almost everyone outside of Dublin. The idle talk of outdoing Heffo’s army of the 1970s, or being the best team of the last 40 years. The talk of benchmarking Dublin against the great Kerry teams, or the Tyrone team of the noughties. 

Yes, you cannot argue with the plaudits. There are going for their fourth All-Ireland in six years, after all.

However, from a player’s perspective, it is difficult to avoid the confidence and expectations of supporters.

Inside the dressing room doors, Dublin will have approached the game in the exact same manner as every other game and all the right messages were delivered.

But maybe, by digging a little deeper, they could expose a frailty in their mental preparation. When does confidence become over-confidence? It is a fine line.

Mayo have a different challenge. They will look to build on the positives but must avoid the pitfalls of thinking they have a box ticked when it comes to the Dubs. Yes, they matched them man for man last weekend but they have achieved nothing yet.

Thinking that it will all happen again automatically is slipping towards the over-confident mode. Mayo have to start from the bottom again this week and look for the causes that brought them that performance in the drawn game.

For the supporters and the media, we are in bonus territory and can enjoy the build-up to another intriguing game next week.

Spare a thought for the players though! They will be tested to their limitations again, all for the love of their county jersey – and some still have to do the day job in between. A donation from the GAA’s replay revenue towards their holiday is the least they deserve as gesture of thanks. 

Herald Sport

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