Monday 23 September 2019

Colm Keys: 'Divide between regular Dublin starters and rest greater than at any stage in Gavin era'


Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Diarmuid Connolly during the All-Ireland SFC final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin and Diarmuid Connolly during the All-Ireland SFC final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly makes his way down the steps from the substitutes bench. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

It is a measure of Dublin's renowned game management that even with a player less they were able to bring such control to the closing stages of an All-Ireland final as they did on Sunday with so much on the line.

With history squeezing hard down on their collective shoulders, they were able to manoeuvre play from one wing to the other and eventually mine an equaliser through Dean Rock while preventing Kerry from getting anywhere close to their own goals down that nerve-tingling home stretch.

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Twice Kerry got over the halfway line but both David Moran and Seán O'Shea were stripped of possession before they could even contemplate what their next move was.

When Killian Spillane whipped over Kerry's last point and Stephen Cluxton restarted with a short kick-out to Davy Byrne, 66 minutes and three seconds had elapsed.

By the time Dean Rock's shot at immortality had gone wide at the near post on the Davin End, the clock had reached 78 minutes and 13 seconds.

In that period of 12 minutes and 10 seconds, the ball was in play for 10 minutes and two seconds and from that Dublin had possession for six minutes and 39 seconds, just under double the time that their opponents, with numerical advantage, had ball in hand for.

Dublin have become accustomed to this high-wire act, conditioned by those afternoons spent in Mayo's company when they needed similar composure and tact to make the right decisions at the right time.

Not every right decision was made on Sunday but to be able to command so much possession without an extra set of legs for the second half was, for all the chaos that seemed to inflict them, up there with any of those tight finishes they lived through in this decade because of what was at stake.

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Their replacements had an impact too. Eoin Murchan skipped forward to present Rock with the opportunity to equalise, taking advantage of Kevin McManamon's pressure on Moran.

If Rock had converted that late free from the sideline, it was Paddy Small's acceleration past a tiring Seán O'Shea that engineered the foul. Cormac Costello was sure he had a point scored until Hawk-Eye intervened while Diarmuid Connolly brought work-rate if not a lot of return during his brief time on the field.

But all of that compared less favourably to the contribution Kerry got from their bench through Tommy Walsh, Killian Spillane and Jack Sherwood especially. For the second successive game, no Dublin substitute scored, something that has only happened once before in Jim Gavin's reign, against Fermanagh in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final.

What's more, for the first time in those 45 championship games, Jim Gavin didn't reach to deploy two more replacement options that were available to him. Only once before, against Kerry in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final, have Dublin not used their full complement of five (2013) or six (2014 onwards) substitutes.

John Small's withdrawal with a blood injury brought Murchan into the game but that still left Gavin with two more fresh sets of legs to see them down the home straight. But Paddy Andrews and Philly McMahon were deemed to be surplus to requirements, Cian O'Sullivan was also held, the presumption being that he had an injury while Darren Daly, Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and reserve goalkeeper Evan Comerford saw no action either.

Not every game demands the full set of substitutes to be deployed but in the circumstances and given their history of it, why did Dublin not turn to two more substitutes to add more impetus?

None of Dublin’s subs contributed to the scoreboard but Killiane Spillane scored 1-1 off the bench for Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
None of Dublin’s subs contributed to the scoreboard but Killiane Spillane scored 1-1 off the bench for Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile

It points to a greater disparity between the champions' first 15 and the rest. Where once there was seamless continuation, now there is a clear divide.

Paul Flynn's retirement, the isolation of Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara, the fall down the pecking order of McManamon and Paddy Andrews, Connolly's dearth of game-time and the abbreviated use of McMahon, two minutes of normal time in the last two games, all contribute to a growing sense that Dublin can no longer tunnel as deep as they once could for impact off the bench.

As the core of the team has strengthened, the graph down through the higher numbers appears to have steepened.

Even when the pressure was on after the first half against Mayo, faith was kept in the starting 15 and duly repaid in that blistering 12-minute spell after the break. It wasn't until the 49th minute that the first substitute was introduced and by then the game was over. The bench impact has always been one of the strongest features of the Gavin era. Over the first two championship campaigns, the scoring return could sometimes tip 20 per cent from those coming into a game.

That effect isn't as strong as it once was though.

This year Dublin have had only 18 different starters in their seven games so far, when the 'dead rubber' against Tyrone in Omagh is taken out of the equation - last Sunday's team plus Costello, McMahon and O'Sullivan.

When Dublin contested the 2016 replay with Mayo, Gavin made three changes between the games, bringing in Mick Fitzsimons, Paul Flynn and Paul Mannion for Davy Byrne, Michael Darragh Macauley and Bernard Brogan.

It was a huge call to leave out Brogan in particular, while Fitzsimons repaid the faith shown in him with a man of the match performance. But Gavin may not have the scope for that range of changes now. Murchan is a possible starter with James McCarthy moving into midfield and Macauley again losing out. That apart, it's hard to see where else Gavin could turn to or where else he feels he would need to.

Macauley's impact in the 2016 replay was hugely significant, coupled with Costello's three-point haul and those options remain.

But the once almost invisible divide is now much more cavernous.

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