Gilroy's fresh thinking stands in way of title milestone for O'Connor
THREE weeks after being appointed Dublin manager in October 2008, Pat Gilroy invited a group of journalists to lunch.
It wasn't done with the intention of getting on the right side of the media from the start of his term, but rather for a far more practical reason. It turned out to be a working lunch and, as we munched our way through, he introduced himself and outlined how he would approach media relations. First, though, he wanted to hear what the media wanted.
He had given a general press conference on the day after his appointment but over the next few weeks, the number of requests for individual interviews had risen to 32. "Even listening to all the messages is time-consuming. If I did all the interviews I've been asked for I'd get nothing done either in my job or with Dublin," he said.
He also explained that he was conscious of the pressure players were coming under for interviews. He said he knew of cases where some players were asked by their employers if they had done interviews during working hours.
There were around 10 journalists at the lunch and Gilroy proceeded to ask each and every one how he thought media relations should work. It was a worthwhile exercise for both sides. Gilroy ascertained the media view while journalists learned that he was conscious of the need for both sides to have a working relationship.
It was a progressive step by Gilroy and underlined the minute detail he was planning to bring to the job. Almost three years later -- and with many other details across the whole range of management issues refined and amended -- he is one win away from becoming the first Dublin manager since Dr Pat O'Neill in 1995 to preside over an All-Ireland win.
In the interim, Mickey Whelan, now Gilroy's right-hand man, Tommy Carr, Tommy Lyons and Paul Caffrey all tried to lead Dublin to the summit but the closest they got were All-Ireland semi-final appearances in 2002 (under Lyons), '06 and '07 (under Caffrey). Dublin also failed the semi-final test under Gilroy last year but finally made the breakthrough this year, leaving him so close to achieving something really special.
Meanwhile, in Kerry, Jack O'Connor is attempting to join the exclusive club of football managers who have led their teams to four or more All-Ireland titles. Dr Eamonn O'Sullivan trained Kerry to eight All-Ireland titles in the days when there were no specialised managers in Gaelic games while Mick O'Dwyer achieved a similar feat as overall boss between 1975 and 1989.
Sean Boylan led Meath to four All-Ireland titles between 1987 and 1999 and now O'Connor is seeking to join him on the same mark.
Of course, under the pre-2001 championship format, O'Connor would now be seeking his third title as the 2009 success was achieved via the 'back door'.
None of which is relevant to O'Connor as he seeks to find a formula which will ensure that by tomorrow evening Dublin are still looking for their first championship win over Kerry for 35 years.
In typical Kerry style, he's talking up Dublin, even if his last championship experience against them was so one-sided as to be embarrassing. Kerry's demolition of Dublin (1-24 to 1-7) in the '09 All-Ireland quarter-final was a defining game, both in terms of establishing the Kerry agenda for the rest of the campaign, and in convincing Gilroy that he had to adapt a new approach for Dublin.
Gilroy colourfully described Dublin as being like "startled earwigs" in the first quarter of that game, a comment which, at another time, might draw down the wrath of players and public.
Not on this occasion, however, because there was a general acceptance that Dublin were so badly exposed there was no point in trying to disguise the truth. Gilroy had gone essentially with the squad of '08, only to find that despite the fresh thinking he brought to the scene, the same old failings resurfaced once real pressure came on outside Leinster.
According to Gilroy, it all came down to bad defending, although not necessarily bad individual defenders. The modern game demands that even corner-forwards become defenders by stopping the opposition building from the back. Prior to last year, Dublin were quite poor in that department.
In late '07, Mick O'Dwyer identified Dublin's defending as a major impediment in their attempts to join Kerry, Tyrone and Cork as genuine All-Ireland contenders.
"They (the Dublin defence) are so attack-minded that when they start to go forward, they seem to forget about their opponents. The amount of space available to opposition forwards against Dublin is amazing. The Dublin defence are poor on positioning and are far too easily wrong-footed," said Micko.
As Gilroy watched Kerry rip Dublin apart two years ago, he knew that a fundamental overhaul was required.
"It wasn't just our defence. It was where it was starting from. We were letting Kerry move the ball far too easily from end to end that day. It didn't take a rocket scientist to work out that was the key area we needed to improve on if we were going to progress as a team. We put a big focus into doing that," he said.
The repair work began in 2010 when, for the first time in many years, Dublin made real progress in the Allianz League. David Henry, who had spent most his career in defence, was re-cast as a forward (numerically at least) with a brief to provide cover for the back six.
Dublin were playing differently and it all worked quite well until they leaked five goals against Meath in the Leinster semi-final. Suddenly, the words 'back' and 'drawing board' sprung to mind. Still, it was only a temporary setback and stability was restored in the qualifiers.
Since then, Dublin have lost only two of 18 Championship and League games, both to Cork. Their average concession rate dropped to 13 points per game this summer and they have conceded only two goals (one each to Kildare and Wexford) in their last eight League and Championship games.
Their defensive discipline has been good too, another area where Gilroy has placed a big emphasis.
Gilroy's philosophy was based on the pragmatic approach that if the old system hadn't worked for so long, it was time to try something new.
However, he insists that Dublin's style, which does involve getting quite a lot of men behind the ball at times, is not overly defensive.
"I think a lot can be made of dropping players back. We don't just drop players back for the sake of doing it. They're doing a job while the opposition has the ball but they don't just sit back there," he said.
Nonetheless, there's no doubt that the biggest single change under the Gilroy regime (in 2010 and 2011 as opposed to '09) is in the defensive alignment. Now, he sends it out against the best attacking force in the land, led by Colm Cooper, Declan and Darran O'Sullivan, who between them scored 1-13 against Dublin two years ago. Kerry supporters have no doubt that if their attack is supplied with enough possession, they will unpick the Dublin locks, maybe not as quickly as in '09, but soon enough to rack up a match-winning score.
Indeed, Kerry looked rather disdainfully on Dublin's laboured attempts at breaking down Donegal's massed defence in the semi-final, believing that it would be impossible for their own attack to go a full hour without scoring from play against any opposition.
No, Kerry harbour no doubts about their attack's capacity to run in a decent score every day, but there are concerns about their defence, who have had lucky escapes in terms of conceding goals.
O'Connor made a bold decision early in the year by recalling Eoin Brosnan to the panel and installing him at centre-back. Brosnan wouldn't have been regarded as a tight marker, but O'Connor clearly saw enough to try him out at No 6. So far, it has worked quite well.
So too has the decision to relocate Bryan Sheehan to midfield. As with Brosnan, it wouldn't have been an obvious move but O'Connor has always backed his own instincts, usually quite profitably.
He did it again this week when leaving Paul Galvin on the bench. Galvin did very well as a sub against Mayo in the semi-final but it wasn't enough to persuade O'Connor to reshape his attack to accommodate one of his top scavengers.
O'Connor described Galvin as "invaluable" in '07 but clearly now believes that his worth is as an impact sub.
Again, it's a brave decision not to start Galvin, whose ability to win possession in the messy, highly populated areas just off midfield looks an obvious asset going into a game like this.
O'Connor is not bothered by what others think. And that includes Galvin, who won't be best pleased by not being in the team. Of course, that hurt could work very much in Kerry's favour, if and when he's brought on.
Just as Kerry have a huge advantage in experience on the pitch and on the bench, O'Connor is far more seasoned in management than Gilroy. However, one suspects that he will be very conscious of the vast improvement in Dublin -- on and off the pitch -- since they last played Kerry in the championship.
Nothing can be taken for granted about Dublin anymore, thanks mainly to the manner in which Gilroy has restructured them in so many different ways.