Wednesday 16 October 2019

Dublin dominate Colm Keys' Football Team of the Decade

Lee Keegan, Michael Murphy and Paul Flynn
Lee Keegan, Michael Murphy and Paul Flynn
Stephen Cluxton: The most important component in Dublin’s decade of success. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Rob Carroll, one of the GAA's pioneering collators of statistics and trends, has been gathering information on games throughout this decade that builds a picture of change through numbers.

One of the aspects of football he documents is attacks and how they originate, whether through carry, handpass or foot-pass.

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His definition of an attack is a passage where the team in possession brings the ball across their opponents' 45-metre line.

It has always been a straightforward metric. But evolution in the last few seasons has challenged even this most meticulous of analysts and left him with a little conundrum.

What happens when, as is quite often the case with Dublin, the ball is brought over and back that demarcation more than once. Or three times as they did in that near three-minute move that led to Paul Mannion's third point in the All-Ireland final replay, wearing out Kerry in the process to such a degree that they scarcely made a good decision for the rest of the game.

"In 2011, I would document attacks and classify them as getting over the 45," says Carroll. "At that stage I didn't have to worry about a team coming back over the 45, they either lost possession or had a shot; it was very rare that they would come back out. Now, though, it's a regular occurrence to go in and out three or four times.

"It wasn't something to worry about when I was designing my code window and tagging panel. Whereas now it's a very different scenario."

For the record, he still classifies it as one attack, despite multiple crossovers, but knows there are many reasons as to why he should incorporate them all.

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Carroll's illustration may seem, at first glance, insignificant, but it does shine a light on the depth of change Gaelic football has experienced, even in one decade.

It's been some decade, reviled and acclaimed at different times and in almost equal measures.


It has stirred resentment over styles of play to such a degree that Cork's All-Ireland-winning captain Larry Tompkins described it at one point as "sickening to watch".

Niall Moyna, DCU's Head of Health and Human Performance, claimed late last year that he would no longer pay to watch a match, while Jarlath Burns, then head of the GAA's Standing Committee on Playing Rules and now a declared presidential candidate, called the Dublin v Derry 2015 League match "the death of football".

Yet the contradiction in all of that is the number of great games the decade has contained, particularly All-Ireland semi-finals and finals. Some can be considered among the greatest ever played.

The Dublin-Kerry-Mayo triumvirate rarely failed to deliver, while Donegal also chipped in on occasion. From the 2012 and 2014 semi-finals to the 2013 and 2016 All-Ireland semi-finals between Dublin and Kerry, the 2017 final between Dublin and Mayo and both of this year's All-Ireland finals, there's a bulging catalogue to rival any decade.

It felt like it reached a high point in this year's replay, especially in the first half, as if it was being played by algorithm as much as instinct.

The returns were quite breathtaking in the opening half with 17 of the 20 points from play, Dublin not registering a wide but converting 10 from 13 shots, Kerry managing 10 from 12. The margins for error were so slim.

In making sense of the decade just passed, it's interesting then to revisit the landmark 2011 All-Ireland semi-final where Dublin eventually found a way past Donegal, scoring eight points to their opponents' six, the same number of goals that Manchester United scored in their Premier League win on that very same afternoon.

Gaelic football got itself entangled in a defensive grip around then. The previous year Dublin had conceded every kick-out short to Tyrone but still won their All-Ireland quarter-final as their rigid defensive screen held firm.

Donegal's approach went a stage further a year later. Watching the panic and decision-making among the Dublin players in that 2011 semi-final, just eight years ago, feels like a step back to another era.

No decade, perhaps with the exception of the 1970s, feels or looks as different at the end by comparison to what it was at the beginning.

"I've done a few games in the past, I tend to agree that the difference between the 1970s and '80s was as stark, it feels more like a bigger shift than the last while," says Carroll. "It has become more possession-based than ever. It is such a shift in mindset."

Cork and Down contested the 2010 All-Ireland final, but since then it's been the preserve of just five counties in nine years, equalling the previous lowest number of All-Ireland finalists in a decade.

When Carroll started collating data, just 14 per cent of kick-outs were short. But very quickly that grew to 50 per cent where it has remained since.

The handpass to foot-pass ratio has also increased significantly from two in 2011 to 3.5 this year, though that is a small decrease on last year.

"I remember looking at basketball and they moved the three-point line at one stage, in the 1970s or '80s, closer to the basket to encourage more three-point throws. The experiment lasted a season or two and then they moved the line back to where it was, but the percentage of shots stayed at the same level," recounts Carroll. "I do wonder does all the negative talk of handpassing seep in a little bit to make teams a little more adventurous. It would be interesting to see if that continues."

Dublin have been the chief drivers of change, from their adjustment after the 2014 semi-final defeat to the measured game they now play, designed to grind and excite in parallel.

Rory Gallagher played an integral part in Donegal's renaissance in the earlier part of the decade as Jim McGuinness's assistant, describing what they did as a "unique tactic designed to shock teams who were set up to play a traditional game".

"It did evolve very quickly and Dublin are a huge part of that," says Gallagher. "I still think they get 14 men behind the ball, but they apply pressure a lot further out the field. It's a numbers game, if you have numbers up the pitch, why drop off? If you're caught out with three or four forwards pressing six defenders, it's impossible to fall back, so you drop back that bit."

For Gallagher, Stephen Cluxton remains the most important component, but Con O'Callaghan will end up being, he feels, the greatest player he'll see.

"He sets the tone. He's brilliant defensively on opposition kick-outs and tackling. Every time he gets the ball, he's looking to be dangerous. He doesn't settle for keep-ball, he's looking to hurt teams and he's composed, he's elusive, a brilliant team player, brilliant finisher."

The elevation of O'Callaghan, Brian Howard and Niall Scully and the "investment in (Ciarán) Kilkenny as the leader" have been the critical differences in taking Dublin much further away from the pack.

"Jim Gavin didn't form Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly; he's formed these players though. They do what he wants, they don't take risks. Go back to that 2014 game against Donegal, the pot-shots. Now? A far more measured game. It's not a kicking game in the traditional sense, it's a measured, quality ball all the time. They don't play risky football, they create one-on-ones."

They sign off the decade more dominant than any county across a similar time frame, a decade that had a bit of everything, most of all change.

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