Thursday 17 October 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Kerry had a very different, very clever plan for the replay - but Dublin dismantled them anyway'

'Kerry asked different questions but this group of greats has all the answers'

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey celebrates at the end of last
weekend’s All-Ireland final replay at Croke Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey celebrates at the end of last weekend’s All-Ireland final replay at Croke Park. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I was at a match at the Lámh Dhearg club in West Belfast on Sunday. Afterwards, I went into the clubhouse for a pint of stout. "£3.10?" I said, "that is great value." A chap from St Gall's piped up "It's a rip-off, Joe, you can get it in St Gall's for £2.88."

I've been drinking in all the wrong places. I've always liked the Lámh Dhearg clubhouse. In spite of the fact that I won the £150 in the tombola there one night and Terry McCrudden, who was operating the grinder, said into the mic: "You're not getting it Brolly, you're rich enough."

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They proceeded to draw another ticket, and someone else won. I stood up and held my arms out wide in protest.

"Sue us," said McCrudden. Everybody laughed. He sat down with me when he had finished and said, "Sorry about that Joe, come on, I'll buy you a pint mate."

When the stout had settled on Sunday afternoon, the chat turned to Dublin.

Paul Buchanan said: "Joe, the Dubs are like that fella we had in the club who can swallow anything. He swallowed a Rubik's cube, and when he spat it up again, the puzzle was done. He invited an audience member up on stage and got them to scramble the cube. He swallowed it again.

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Stephen Cluxton makes a crucial save in the second half from Stephen O’Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
"You could see the cube moving down his gullet. Then, he burped and squirmed and after a minute you could see it coming back up his gullet again. When he spat it out into his hand, the puzzle was solved.

"Like the Dubs. No matter what you do to confuse them, they always solve the problem."

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Kerry confused Dublin no end for a full 10 minutes in the drawn game by using a high zonal press on the kick-out.

But after Kerry turned his kick-outs over three times, Stephen Cluxton, and his team-mates, adapted. In the space of the next 10 minutes, Cluxton kicked long over the press three times, Dublin scored 1-2 and Kerry were forced to back down. The Rubik's cube had been swallowed, then successfully regurgitated.

It is obvious that Peter Keane and his management carefully studied the drawn game. Having done so, they meticulously crafted a very clever, very different and totally logical plan for the replay.

In the first game, Dublin depended on two things to get their scores. Firstly, that high Kerry zonal press, which yielded 1-2 from play.

Secondly, seven fouls inside the '45' which yielded seven points from frees for Dean Rock. These two aspects of the drawn game alone resulted in 1-9 of Dublin's total.

So, Keane changed things up and made the smart play. Kerry abandoned the high press, instead permitting the Dubs to kick out as normal (as it happens, they won all but one of their own kick-outs).

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Dean Rock of Dublin in action against Jason Foley of Kerry
Secondly, they played a full-time sweeper in front of the full-back and set up a zonal defence at the periphery of the scoring zone.

The results were - looked at in isolation - spectacular. Dublin did not get a single breakaway score from their own kick-out as there was no longer any option to kick over the top. So, 0-0 there.

Also, Kerry defended brilliantly without fouling, with the result that they did not give away a single free inside Dean Rock's scoring range. 0-0 there as well. Yet it made no difference. Instead of the 1-16 they posted in the drawn game, Dublin managed 1-18.

If you had been told beforehand that Dublin would not get a single free-kick from scoring distance throughout this game, you would most probably have concluded that Kerry would win the game.

After all, Dean Rock's frees have been a huge part of Dublin's march towards the five-in-a-row. In their six All-Ireland final matches (including the replay in 2016) before Sunday's replay, he had kicked 0-28 from frees, an average of almost 0-5 per game.

Last Sunday, he didn't score a single free, his only placed ball being from a '45' with a few minutes to go and the game long over.

The most surprising feature of Kerry's strategy was their blanket defensive counter-attacking system.

Who would have thought a Kerry team would borrow from the Mickey Harte playbook, but this is precisely what they did.

Surprisingly, this worked rather well for a while. Kerry soaked up the Dubs' attacks, then hit them on the break, causing Dublin defenders to run towards their own goal with their backs to the play.

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Eoin Murchan of Dublin shoots to score his side's first goal during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
By half-time, Dublin had been sucked into this trap and the scores, surprisingly, were level.

Then, Eoin Murchan went roving forward from the tip-off, shook off David Moran, then had a good look at the 'keeper and the defenders, before passing the ball expertly to the corner of the net with the outside of the right foot, leaving the goalkeeper and his full-backs standing there open-mouthed like the audience at the Lámh Dhearg club.

Watching Dublin's warm-up, it is striking how basic it is, as distinct from say Corofin's, which is a bewildering warm-up for the mind.

The Dubs' involves accurate kick-passing with either foot. Solid high catching. Ball lofted into the air to be flicked down for an onrushing team-mate rather than caught.

The pause and slight change of direction before executing the skill. Never rushing it. Murchan's goal was a good example of this: a skill practised 10,000 times, executed out of force of habit, at arguably the most important moment in the history of Dublin football.

It didn't look like his first goal. It could easily have been his 15th.

Mind you, Con O'Callaghan's first goal wasn't bad either, a similarly audacious solo effort in the 2017 semi-final against Tyrone. Skills, as Floyd Mayweather's dad was wont to say, pay the bills. Dublin practise the basic skills intensively at every training session, in the same way that the All Blacks famously spend entire sessions throwing passes to each other, which seems to work out pretty well.

After Murchan's pass to the net, the rest was a masterclass in winning. Dublin, as they appear to do in the championship moments, began to look as if they had two or three extra men.

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Jonny Cooper of Dublin in action against Seán O'Shea of Kerry during the All-Ireland SFC final replay at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
As they went harder and faster and stronger, an exhausted Kerry wilted. Seán O'Shea was by now hobbling around the park in the forlorn manner of an exhausted marathon runner coming to the finishing line. Inside him, Clifford limped about, knowing that all hope was lost.

For the last 15 minutes, Kerry did not claim a score. Just as in the last 15 minutes of the drawn game, when they didn't even get a shot off.

A special word on James McCarthy. Restored to his midfield berth, he was back to himself. In the drawn game, David Moran had given Kerry a formidable attacking platform with his high fetching from the kick-outs.

Last Saturday, James was all over him, punching the ball away in the air and forcing Kerry to go back into their own defence to retrieve the breaks. McCarthy was the most important player on the field.

Long before the end, Moran was completely subdued, and his legs had been run off him. Insult to injury when McCarthy drove forward near the end and picked off a delightful point from a difficult angle. What a player. What a man.

Afterwards, Dublin's assistant coach Declan Darcy said of Diarmuid Connolly's return: "First and foremost, it was really important for us, the care of Diarmuid. Things weren't going really well for him probably outside of football and I think he needed football, he needed structure and whatever about whether he was to function within our group or not, to bring him back into the group was the right thing to do.

"No matter whether we won an All-Ireland, I still think it would have been the right thing to do because we were looking after one of our own and he needs to be in our family.

"Because the lads are brilliant to look after him, and reach out to him, which is really, really important. It was very impressive to see, when it operated, how Diarmuid flourished in that environment, and that friendship being shared to him... it was brilliant to see.

"He is one of our own and we are looking after one of our own, and I think in the context of sport, the GAA is a really, good powerful community within, right around the country at looking after their own."

Long after the stadium was empty, the stewards at Croke Park went into the empty Dublin dressing room, only to find Stephen Cluxton mopping the floor.

With this Dublin team, winning is merely the icing on the cake.

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