Monday 23 April 2018

Ger Brennan: All Ireland build up for players is far from what you think it is

Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicks the winning point from a free in injury time of the 2011 All-Ireland
Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicks the winning point from a free in injury time of the 2011 All-Ireland

Ger Brennan

AS the climax to the 2015 Gaelic football season looms nearer, I am enjoying both the freedom and excitement surrounding the build up to Dublin v Kerry's 13th All-Ireland Final meeting (the latter having won eight).

At the same time, I am not particularly enjoying the frustration and disappointment of not being involved due to injury. Alas, such is life and one must look forward to the future.

While my opening lines are a bit paradoxical, the reality is this: the build-up to a final for a player is a million miles different from what the public thinks.

I have been privileged enough to play for Dublin in their last two All-Ireland Final appearances and feel fortunate to have finished both games on the right side on the scoreboard.

So to help you gain an understanding of a player's mindset in the weeks leading up the final, all you have to do is to imagine you are an ostrich with your head in the sand while a herd of buffalo stampede around you!

The buffalo are desperately in search of tickets and they insist on informing any ostrich they meet of their pre-game predictions!

Ger Brennan has left the Dublin panel
Ger Brennan has left the Dublin panel

All joking and personal frustrations aside, the build-up to an All-Ireland final is one of the most marvellous experiences of a player's career. And currently as a fan, I am hugely excited this Sunday's clash in Páirc an Chrócaigh.

While Mayo and Tyrone people rue missed opportunities from their respective semi-finals, it's hard to argue that the two best teams this year are not in the final (even the buffalos can attest to this!).

Kerry are the aristocrats of Gaelic football with 37 titles with Dublin in pursuit on 24.

The Kingdom's route to the final began on June 14 with an average, by their standards, 2-14 to 2-8 victory over Tipperary. From here they overcame arch rivals Cork in a replayed Munster Final at rain-soaked Fitzgerald Stadium.

Cork people still feel aggrieved by referee Pádraig Hughes' decision to award a late penalty to Kerry's James O'Donoghue in the drawn game but that's the beauty of sport, its unpredictability! Moving on, Kerry barely sweated a drop in their seven-goal thrashing of the Lilywhites, before finishing the stronger in a much tougher encounter against Mickey Harte's Tyrone. In their five games to date, Kerry have scored 110 points (22 points on average per game), and conceded 68 (13.6 points on average per game). Interestingly, they have scored 2.4 goals per game; a figure I will return to shortly.

Dublin, on the other hand have played six games in their journey to All-Ireland Final Day. The Leinster campaign (plus the Fermanagh game) was a damp squib. You would have found more entertainment on the recent Dublin Diocesan pilgrims' airplane to Lourdes (so my mother informs me!).

Kerry captain Kieran Donaghy
Kerry captain Kieran Donaghy

Nonetheless, Dublin did what they had to do to arrange a semi-final encounter against Mayo. The drawn game was a negative affair and it didn't spring into life until the final quarter with Mayo successful in chasing down a seven point deficit. The much anticipated replay offered spectators a far better game of open and positive football, this time Dublin finishing the stronger with three goals in a nine minutes spree, which killed off the Mayo threat.

In total, Dublin have scored 160 points (26 points average per game), and conceded 86 (14 points average per game). Their goal average of 3 per game slightly trumps Kerry's 2.4 goal average.

In essence, Kerry's defensive and goal scoring record is almost identical to that of Dublin's. The attention-grabbing figure for me lies in the overall scoring average of both teams. Dublin have scored 4 points more per game than Kerry. It raises the question then: will this be the difference between the sides at 5.10pm on Sunday? Only time will tell.

To put statistics and figures to one side for the moment, most intuitive people understand, appreciate and enjoy the unpredictable nature of All-Ireland Finals. While current form, tradition and recent encounters between both teams do factor into the final equation, history informs us that finals often take on a life of their own. Thus, it's hard to argue that this Sunday might not be any different.

Nonetheless, the imaginative and creative outlook enjoyed by the supporter rarely penetrates the logical and professional focus of an inter-county player's brain. Both Kerry and Dublin players in their preparations will be working hard on maximising and exploiting the respective strengths and weaknesses of one another.

I feel Kerry will have learned a lot about their own weaknesses after their semi-final meeting with Tyrone - in particular, their leaking of goal-scoring opportunities. On several occasions throughout that game when Tyrone ran at them from deep, they created numerous goal and point scoring opportunities. The only problem for the Red Hands was their inability to convert clearcut three-point chances. This is an area that Dublin can and should exploit. Kerry have conceded seven goals in five games and do look vulnerable when run at from deep. Dublin have conceded four goals in six games.

Kerry, however, possess an incredible amount of forward talent which outscores most oppositions. They will no doubt push Dublin's defenders to their limits. Their attacking strategy moves seamlessly back and forth from a long diagonal ball approach to a short hand pass and hard running angled game. Dublin's defence will have to adapt to these situations quickly.

Kevin McManamon scores against Kerry
Kevin McManamon scores against Kerry

Additionally, just when you feel like you've gotten a handle on James O'Donoghue, Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy, Éamonn Fitzmaurice springs Darran O'Sullivan, Bryan Sheehan and Paul Geaney from the bench (to mention but a few). Concentrating and responding to these changes will be a major factor if Dublin are to limit Kerry's attacking machine.

In conclusion, I am finding it difficult to confidently predict the outcome of this game. There exist many intriguing battles within the game.

- Kerry's efforts to stop Stephen Cluxton's kickouts (the origin of most of Dublin's scores).

- The midfield battle - Kerry are such strong fielders while Dublin enjoy a more free-flowing strategy.

- What will Dublin do if Cian O'Sullivan's injury reoccurs?

- Which bench will have the strongest impact?

All in all, I predict that this All-Ireland Final will be tactically intriguing until the final quarter where Dublin will go on to win by . . . four points!

You would have found more entertainment on the recent Dublin Diocesan pilgrims' airplane to Lourdes !


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