Saturday 21 April 2018

Colm Keys: Dublin's unshakable faith in their beliefs

Winning a game by scoring more rather than conceding less at heart of Gavin's plan

Paul Mannion fists the ball past Brendan Kealy for Dublin's first goal
Paul Mannion fists the ball past Brendan Kealy for Dublin's first goal
Dublin's Kevin McManamon, right, shoots to score his side's second goal
Eoghan O'Gara scores Dublin's third goal past Kerry goalkeeper
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Some 31 minutes into Sunday's epic All-Ireland semi-final, an unusual sight unfolded in front of the Hill 16 end goals.

Congregated either across or behind their own '45' were 12 Dublin outfield players in a tightly-packed defensive orientation not in keeping with the lay-out they have subscribed to in each of the nine league and four previous championship matches they have played in 2013.

It wasn't planned that way, the players themselves just gravitated towards a more conservative formation, conscious and obviously cautious of the buffeting their full-back line had taken in those frantic opening 20 minutes.

This was Dublin under Jim Gavin as we hadn't seen them before. And when they set up in similar numbers to repel a further Kerry attack, the 'glasnost' approach, the expressed desire to 'play football as it should be played' as stated by players and manager throughout this season, looked like it had succumbed to a certain reality.

Against forwards of the highest quality operating an 'open'-door, system-free policy attaches significant risk, and it looked like a heavy toll was being exacted.


But the shocks they absorbed, courtesy of James O'Donoghue's daring raids, Donnchadh Walsh's stealth and Colm Cooper's lock-picking did not resonate for long.

By the resumption of the second half, with Ger Brennan displaced and Cian O'Sullivan reverting to centre-back, they began trusting their instincts again. The desire to push up and press on was rekindled, the bump on the road had been negotiated.

'Playing the game the way it should be played' was something both Gavin and Stephen Cluxton made reference to at their post-match press conference on Sunday evening.

It is an ideal they have aspired to from the moment they came together and have scarcely deviated from.

This was the third time in four championship games that they had been shaken by an opposition surge. Against Kildare and Kerry it had come early, against Meath it had materialised in the lead-up to half-time.

But each time they have held their nerve, stayed true to their principles and stuck by the belief that they can go 'faster for longer' than anyone else. That brief period before half-time apart, it looks like the faith in their system is unshakable and unyielding.

What's more, it looks and sounds like they are enjoying it and even driving it as much as their manager.

"That's why everyone is so happy to do it," acknowledged Paddy Andrews afterwards. "Nobody is going to deviate from it. We'll just keep on going. And when lads get tired with 10 or 15 minutes to go, the next guys come on and they'll just keep on going.

"I don't see why we wouldn't (stick with the approach) because no matter how many matches we played this season, we've (only) lost once – in the group stages in the league to Tyrone. There is just huge belief in what we are trying to do, you can see it there, everyone has bought into it."

The concession of those three early Kerry goals, he suggested, had not dented their faith.

"We just always believed in our own tactics and we believed in ourselves. We've got confidence from our success in the National League and winning a lot of games," said Andrews.

"In our game against Kildare in the Leinster championship we conceded an early goal and went behind.

"We just wanted to keep plugging away and doing what we have been training to do all year, even when Kerry got the three goals.

"There was plenty of time to come back and we got our scores at the right time. Once we got a bit of a run, we always knew we'd have the momentum to see us through."

The all-out attacking philosophy has created a remarkable number of goal chances this summer. In their five championship games they've had 37 obvious goal opportunities, including six last Sunday. Just 11 have been seized upon, but three out of six against Kerry represents their best return yet.

On Sunday, the runs of James McCarthy and to a lesser extent Jack McCaffrey may have been stifled by their preoccupation with man-marking duties against a supreme Kerry half-forward line, but Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O'Sullivan exploited mobility issues in the Kerry midfield time and time again in the opening half.

With Mayo's devotion to a similar high-tempo attacking and offloading philosophy taking them to an All-Ireland final with relative comfort, are we seeing the antidote to blanket defence?

Perhaps, but only if the players are available to play that way, and right now Dublin and Mayo are best equipped in that regard.

A 2-17 yield from Mayo defenders so far this season suggests the points of attack can be broader than Dublin's but the same principles still exist.

In their last four meetings, three league and one All-Ireland semi-final, Mayo have not scored a goal but have averaged just short of 18 points per game.

The instinct when faced by massed numbers has been to stop, think and go lateral but the game's current protagonists may have found a way to circumvent it.

Full circle

Winning a game by 'scoring more' rather than 'conceding less' has seen Gaelic football's wheel turn full circle in a short space of time.

Two years on from the corresponding All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal, the shift in emphasis is startling.

By committing to 'playing the game the way it should be played' it has the feel of a crusade.

The risk in what they do remains high grade. But beating Kerry by sticking to the plan will embolden them to stay with it.

In Mayo, they will have kindred spirits in approach. Faster for longer. Gaelic football's latest turn of the wheel.

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