Thursday 17 January 2019

Colm O'Rourke: Fortune favours the brave in the open spaces of Croke Park


Stephen Cluxton leads his troops at Croke Park
Stephen Cluxton leads his troops at Croke Park
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

After surviving two matches in Croke Park last Sunday, I am ready for a re-enactment of Tom Crean's voyage to the Antarctic. Such was the bitter cold that everyone who attended both games should receive a free ticket for some upcoming game or maybe even the Rolling Stones concert - even if Mick Jagger might have trouble putting over a close-in free or getting through a blanket defence.

The games were of a good standard. They were also very enjoyable, and shone a light on the future prospects of all four teams. You have to see games in the flesh rather than on television if you want to get a proper sense of teams. Television cameras by their nature get close to the ball but what is happening far away from the action can tell as much. Why, for example, are players not kicking the ball in? Television does not show how many forwards are up and how many defenders are in attendance, so looking away from the ball, when watching live, teaches as much as focusing narrowly on where the play is at any one time.

Croke Park also changes the nature of games. The ball moves quicker, the pace of the game is faster and teams who attack at speed, either through the hands or by sharp foot passing, will be much better off on the big pitch. So Dublin have all the aces, most of the best players and a surface which suits their style of play better than any other field in the country.

In many ways, we saw a new Dublin team, but they still keep winning. No Connolly, O'Sullivan, Flynn, McCaffrey or a few others, but the ship sails on. Now it is Howard, Scully, Basquel, O'Callaghan and Murchan. A seamless transition. The most important players at the moment are Johnny Cooper, Brian Fenton, Paul Mannion, Dean Rock and Ciarán Kilkenny. They will be around for a while but if the age profile of these players is just about perfect, the bag of flour still stands because of a continued dependence on Stephen Cluxton and his kick-outs.

Even when Galway had a man extra last Sunday they made no impression on Cluxton's ability to find his own man. Contrast that with the Galway kick-out. When Dublin were down to 14 after Niall Scully's silly yellow cards, they pushed right up on the Galway kick-out, even to the extent of leaving some of the Galway forwards loose. That takes bravery and confidence. Dublin also won many of these and were straight on to the attack. Ruairi Lavelle made a great save from Rock when a goal at the three-quarter stage would have made it easier for the Dubs, but if Rock had looked right he could have handed it on a plate to Con O'Callaghan. The Dubs don't normally make these mistakes.

The test for any team against Dublin is the last quarter and Galway failed that test on Sunday. Especially so when they were a man up as they did not know how to cope. When Dublin had possession in the last quarter they held on to it easily and were not pressurised enough. Galway also failed to push sufficient players forward to disrupt the Cluxton kick-out and many players hung back while Dublin worked the ball around in midfield instead of getting out and hunting it down.

I am not trying to make this simple and have often stood on the sideline watching and wondering why players under my management did not change tack. However, over the last few years at club level we have often changed completely from game to game and even within games. Sometimes from using a sweeper to a complete flat-out press. Players only get comfortable with systems when they have to change regularly and one size does not fit all. If Galway were a bit more flexible and brave they would have pushed right up on Dublin and forced a shoot-out.

Maybe that would have left them open to sharp Dublin counter-attacks, but the object of the exercise is to win games not put on a decent display. For that reason, I was disappointed by Galway and do not see them as serious championship contenders unless they spend every training session from now to the Mayo match changing formations to suit the circumstances.

At least Galway left Damien Comer up front for most of the game and he caused plenty of trouble in the first half especially. His rampaging style is difficult to counteract. Again things changed in the second half and when he was double-marked it should have meant more room for others. All of this is a learning experience for many of the Galway players and they have very little recent form in Croke Park. Yet football at this level is not for choir boys and some of the Dublin players are just as inexperienced. Fortune favours the brave.

Some of the Galway substitutions also surprised me. Shane Walsh and Paul Conroy were taken off. Conroy had a bad wide when he should have passed at a crucial late stage, but a team needs their big players at the end. Walsh scored a delightful point off the ground with his left foot - shades of Maurice Fitzgerald - and he looks like a confidence player. He drifts in and out of games but needs to be left on in tight matches.

Many of the Galway supporters in the stand were losing their reason with the referee late in the game. Almost every decision went against Galway and there were several occasions when Galway players were mauled in possession and either had a free given against them or else there was a throw-up. So Galway certainly suffered at the hands of the referee after Scully had been sent off. Even early on the Dubs should have had at least one black card so Galway's complaints in this regard are justifiable, but that should not be an excuse for their own inadequacies down the home stretch .

They still have plenty of good players and Peter Cooke and Seán Andy Ó Ceallaigh are very positive additions, but the major shift in emphasis that I have flagged already becomes even more glaring as the summer looms.

For now, things change but remain the same. The Dubs won without getting out of third gear, they dominated the game when it counted and had a calmness and direction to their play which Galway could not match. Even subs like Colm Basquel and Eoin Murchan, who most people have not heard much about, slotted in and did their job with an absolute minimum of fuss. That comes with winning and a winning mentality. And Con O'Callaghan made an appearance. If he was a top-class horse he would be given a long break after his brilliant exploits with Cuala, but he looked like he was mad for road. That is bad news for opposition backs.

Another title for Dublin and with it the discovery of even more talent. And the meek are supposed to inherit the earth. Somebody should tell Jim Gavin that.

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