Monday 26 August 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Rumours of Dublin's demise are greatly exaggerated - and you only have to ask one question to see why'

‘You’ve got to ask yourself the question: when it comes to the crunch on the first Sunday in September, who can conjure the vital scores?' Photo: Sportsfile
‘You’ve got to ask yourself the question: when it comes to the crunch on the first Sunday in September, who can conjure the vital scores?' Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

True mindfulness is for Zen Masters, those in a coma, and Jim Gavin.

Having said that, he hasn't much cause to get agitated on the bench, his team having lost just the one championship match in six years. The team has excellent strategies for each aspect of the game. The individuals are talented and selfless. In that happy situation, the coach might as well jump in the car and head home when the ball is thrown in.

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I have been watching the Golden State Warriors in the NBA play-offs, who unlike the Dubs are on their way to a mere three-in-a-row. What sets them apart is when they most need a score, they are able to conjure one. This is something that all the great champions possess. They stay within themselves. Like Jonny Wilkinson taking a penalty kick. Or Messi taking a free. Or a great boxer entering the championship rounds at the end of a gruelling fight.

The only question to ask when assessing the runners in this year's football championship is: Who can conjure a score when they most need one?

Here are Dublin's second-half conversion rates (chances to scores) in their last two All-Ireland finals: 2017, 75% (0-12 from 16 chances); 2018, 72% (0-10 from 14 chances)

These conversion rates are unprecedented. The finale to the 2017 final is something I regularly think about. In the 63rd minute, Mayo have an easy free in front of goal that puts them two up, 1-15 to 1-13. At exactly 63.00, Stephen Cluxton very carefully and accurately kicks a short, dangerous kick-out to Michael Fitzsimons who is being closely marked. Fitzsimons takes possession, and as he is being pursued, scans the pitch ahead of him, left and right, before hand-passing the ball back to Cluxton. Mayo are pressing right up on them. The crowd is at fever pitch. Ger Canning says, "Dublin, what have you got left?" Quite a lot, as it turns out.

James McCarthy runs back hard towards his own goal and takes the hand-pass from Cluxton. He in turn scans what is ahead of him, then hand-passes carefully to Cian O'Sullivan who is on the left touchline near his own 45. O'Sullivan toe-taps once, then bounces the ball, turns away from the tackle and hand-passes to Ciarán Kilkenny, who in turn checks ahead before hand-passing to Johnny Cooper. It is now 63.30. A full 30 seconds have elapsed since Cluxton took the kick-out and the Dubs still haven't crossed the halfway line.

They are so relaxed they could be playing an O'Byrne Cup game against Wicklow. Cooper lays the ball off to McCarthy, who finally takes them over the halfway line and hand-passes carefully to Brian Fenton. Fenton races through and lays the ball off to Paul Mannion, who carefully kicks a point from close range to make it 1-15 to 1-14. From kick-out to score took 53 seconds and no Mayo hand touched the ball.

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Next up, the Dublin zonal kick-out press. At 65.02, David Clarke is forced to kick long. Fenton flicks the ball down deftly to Philly McMahon, who immediately lays it off to the onrushing McCarthy. He hand-passes to Mannion, who delivers a diagonal 30-metre kick-pass to Bernard Brogan. McCarthy has continued his run, veers around Brogan, uses him as a screen, takes the hand-pass and kicks a point from 21 metres. The time is 65.12 and Mayo's lead is gone, never to return.

The next play sums up the difference between Dublin and all the others. Conor Loftus panics and goes on a solo run through the Dublin defence. He is bottled up and lays the ball back out, just in time, to Patrick Durcan. Durcan immediately goes on a solo run through traffic and is dispossessed by Fenton, who looks left and right and delivers a 40-metre kick-pass to Diarmuid Connolly, who is waiting at halfway on the touchline. Connolly veers inside and kicks a 40-metre pass cross-field to Dean Rock as he races towards goal. Rock fists an easy point: 1-16 to 1-15, 66.45 on the clock. In three minutes and 45 seconds, Dublin went from two down to one up, not losing possession once.

Their final score came from a Dean Rock free, nervelessly dispatched even as Lee Keegan threw his GPS at him. As James Robinson has demonstrated, Rock is the most successful free-taker in the history of All-Irelands, with a conversion rate that will likely never be matched.

Then, the finale. Massive pressure, physical and emotional, is placed on that last Mayo kick-out. Clarke cracks (compare with Cluxton in the championship moments) and kicks it over the sideline. Mayo are pressing frantically, but they are powerless. At 77.37, Brogan deftly finds his man from the sideline kick. Dublin then weave a spell of 22 consecutive kick and hand-passes, holding possession until the referee blows the final whistle.

Last year, in the final against Tyrone, they didn't play well. Mick O'Dwyer complained afterwards that they couldn't beat teams handsomely the way his Kerry team did, but by the same token, this Dublin team haven't faced any under-prepared, slightly overweight opponents in the course of their four-in-a-row campaign. By the 16th minute last year, Tyrone were 0-5 to 0-1 ahead. Six minutes later, Dublin were 1-4 to 0-5 ahead and the game was over. By half-time it was 2-7 to 0-6, Tyrone not having scored for the last 16 minutes of the half. That six-minute blitz was what champions do. They sense the importance of the moment and seize it. For the remainder of the game, they held them at arm's length like Floyd Mayweather.

Mayo look very good right now. So too do the all-new, football-playing, self-expressing, long-kicking Tyrone. I discount Kerry, who look to be a team of solo-runners. Instead of building an unselfish kicking game based around the awesome talents of David Clifford, they want to solo run. This is what children do and, as Dick Clerkin says, there is no place in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day for children.

Galway are living in a cul de sac with Fermanagh, Down, Carlow and a few others. Kevin Walsh doesn't know how to escape from it, so they might bore their way to a Connacht title and possibly inflict themselves on the viewers during the Super 8, but that is where it will end. Donegal, meanwhile, are full of flair and imagination and will be a difficult opponent for anyone.

Dublin? True, they didn't have a great league. But then again, neither did any of Micko's teams. It might be worth remembering that the Dubs' first training session was May 1, 2019. When you find yourself saying 'Dublin aren't the team they were' or 'There's something about them that isn't quite right', you've got to ask yourself the question: when it comes to the crunch on the first Sunday in September, who can conjure the vital scores? Or picture this: Mayo or Tyrone run out on All-Ireland final day. Then, out come the Dubs. At that moment, if you had to put your house on it, who would you pick?

The five-in-a-row is coming. And it will take more than a pudgy little substitute to stop it.

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