Thursday 22 February 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Different priorities will shape how result is seen

Dublin need players like Brian Fenton to return to last season’s form and drive the team on. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin need players like Brian Fenton to return to last season’s form and drive the team on. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Dublin are in some type of decline - that is the general view after the League final defeat to Kerry and the not-so-impressive win over Carlow. It is not something I agree with. I am more in the Mark Twain mould and feel that rumours about their demise are greatly exaggerated. Dublin are merely in sleep mode and will be ready to strike from today on. This year is entirely based around the championship and I certainly expect that they will be involved in September.

There was no other option for Jim Gavin than to take this course. He could have driven on and won another league. People have stopped counting leagues in Dublin, and it won't be long before medals from the second competition start turning up in jumble sales or being used as weights for fishing lines. That is their current importance. Of course there will come a time when Dublin will be delighted with a league title but for now it is of no consequence.

So the clear strategy is to put all the eggs in one basket and go for September gold. The build-up starts now, but as with a good horse there will be a bit of condition left to work on for later in the season. Any other course would have left this team more mentally than physically tired. The difference is that good managers are able to decide that sometimes less is more and cut back on training.

The worst type of management is when a manager worried by a bad performance decides that the team is unfit and pushes them to a point where the whole edge goes. In general, all teams are very fit and well conditioned so it is something other than that which is the difference between victory and defeat.

Most of the time I think it is simply that one set of players are better individually and collectively than others, and the manager's job is not to mess it up. Yet the hunger or freshness factor, or whatever you want to call it, can sometimes have a major impact. When I was playing with Meath, Seán Boylan had the knack of having his players right on the day. It did not always mean we won but at least it gave us the best chance. As with a good racehorse trainer, this can only come from observation and intuition.

Sometimes we wondered were we fit at all as we had done so little coming up to games, yet everyone seemed fresh and well on the day. There was only one big game that I felt that we were not right and that was the All-Ireland final of 1990. That was the players' fault as much as anyone else's.

Teams peak, and the good manager gets it right on the days when it counts most. There is nothing in it for Dublin for a while yet and so a slow build-up begins in this match. Not that it will be evident to the ordinary supporter, as all the players will be going hard as they are afraid of those on the bench as much as Westmeath. So to a point Dublin are battling themselves as well as the opposition.

Does anyone think Westmeath will win today? Do the Westmeath players believe they will win? Hopefully they do and go out to live or die with their boots on rather than fold meekly as they have in the past.

Tom Cribbin will hold the view that it is not his role to go out and play Dublin in an open game where the inevitable result would be a massacre. The first part of the puzzle is to avoid giving away a bagful of goals. To do that means flooding his defence with a few extra defenders. The downside to this is that it leaves very few to score up front. This part of the game is now called the transition phase and involves having about 10 marathon runners who can tear up and down the field all day. A good footballer with limited athletic ability is a dead species. The modern requirement is to be a runner first and footballer second. If you can get both then you have hit the jackpot.

Westmeath's best chance is to turn the tables on Dublin and score three or four goals. They have men like Paul Sharry, John Heslin and Kieran Martin to make hay too, that is if Sharry is in the mood and the other two take up residence close to the Dublin goal and the ball is kicked in both high and low.

Ger Egan will get plenty of ball around midfield so Westmeath must come with an attacking strategy rather than looking to keep the score down and hoping for a good draw in the qualifiers. Progress is best measured against Dublin in championship football. Westmeath have already got promotion from the bottom division but they should never have dropped so low with a decent bunch of players. So today is about reflecting new ambition as much as this game.

Dublin are playing for history and that sometimes weighs heavily, but they have men of character on this team. Of course they have to make do without Diarmuid Connolly, but it is better that the distraction has been dealt with and if you skate on thin ice too often there is a fair chance of falling in. Anyway Dublin have enough players to cope both in the short term and maybe even in the longer term too. The collective trumps the individual every time.

Connolly at his best is a huge loss; Connolly in truculent mood is limited value; Connolly in foul mood, doing silly things, is a liability. Perhaps Jim Gavin is not losing any sleep over current developments. This will sharpen the senses of the other players and Connolly will be all the better for a holiday.

What Dublin need is for players like Brian Fenton to return to last season's form and drive the team on from midfield. Then there is group of players who need to bare their teeth again - Cooper, McMahon, O'Sullivan, McCarthy, Rock, Brogan, the list goes on and on, while Jack McCaffrey will cause chaos with his speed if he can put glue on his hamstrings.

So Dublin hold most of the aces and will be anxious to show some of them, even if the Dublin management don't care too much about today. What they want is a win and for the players to show that there is plenty of fire left in the bellies. In contrast, Westmeath have their sights on less lofty peaks. No harm in being conservative, but they have to play a bit too.

It is not Westmeath's job to save the Leinster championship but they could do everyone a favour by playing no more than one sweeper and keeping a few forwards up the pitch at all times. This may all sound very innocent in the current era but they must keep their best forwards close to the Dublin goal for the whole game. Anything else is going down without courage.

Dublin will win and probably want to send out a signal of future intent. The sub-plots are important to Westmeath and to Kildare as well: the type of challenge offered, the willingness to engage and whether there are chinks appearing in the champions' armour. Dublin to win, probably easily, but hopefully there is a contest, not just a game, for at least 50 minutes.

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