Sunday 18 August 2019

Pat Spillane: Do Dubs have know-how to seal the deal?

Rory O'Carroll is back for the Dubs
Rory O'Carroll is back for the Dubs

Pat Spillane

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

"But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know."

– DONALD RUMSFELD.

Regardless of the outcome, the 2019 football championship will be remembered for a generation.

Come September we won't be talking about the quality of the football we've witnessed. No, the 2019 series will be defined by whether Dublin wins the five-in-a-row or not. Either way it will be the story of the summer.

I doubt if former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld knows much about Gaelic football. But his famous remark quoted above is relevant when analysing Dublin's five-in-a-row ambitions.

As Con Houlihan would say, now read on…

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The known knowns; the things we know we know

Dublin have been the best football team in the country for the last four years. Jim Gavin is the best manager in the modern era. They have the best squad – boosted by the return of Rory O'Carroll – and they have more impact substitutes than any other county. They are not restricted to a one game plan. They have intelligent players who can read and adapt to any situation.

They have home advantage in all their major games – let's stop pretending that Croke Park is not their home venue – and they have more fans than any other county.

The known unknowns, the things we do not know

Injuries: Kilkenny's bid to secure the hurling five-in-a-row in 2010 was badly hit by injuries. Centre-back Brian Hogan missed the final; his replacement John Tennyson was hampered by a cruciate ligament injury, while their leader Henry Shefflin had to retire before the end of the first quarter.

In 1982 Jimmy Deenihan – then the best man-marker in the game – missed the All-Ireland final with a broken leg. Would Séamus Darby have got inside him? I doubt it.

I came on at half-time, but wasn't fit to play, having ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament. The seriousness of the injury is reflected in the fact that I didn't play inter-county football again for a year-and-a-half.

What if any of Dublin's key players, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny or Stephen Cluxton, got injured? Then we are looking at an entirely different scenario.

Refereeing decisions: In the second-half of the 1982 All-Ireland final, PJ McGrath was guilty of what I would describe as weak refereeing. He awarded underdogs Offaly – who were then behind – a number of handy frees. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not using this as an excuse, but in a game of tight margins refereeing decisions can be crucial.

Lady Luck: An unpredictable bounce or a slip at the wrong time can decide the outcome of a game.

The unknown unknowns – the things we don't know we don't know

There is no guarantee that the best team will win. Back in 1982, had we played Offaly any other day the odds are that we would have beaten them. But we lost on the day that counted. It happens.

The key is how the Dublin players handle the pressure that will build and build over the next four months.

I remember Mick O'Dwyer reflecting on Kildare's appearance in the 1998 All-Ireland final when he was in charge.

He had them focused when they were inside in the training ground in Newbridge, but once they went home their heads were being turned in all directions.

He said if he was to do it all again he would have taken the squad away from Kildare in the run-up to the final.

The build-up to any five-in-a-row attempt is massive, but with Dublin's huge population and the fact that the national media is based there, the hype will be on a scale we have never witnessed before.

Shutting out that noise will be virtually impossible. Regardless of how focused the players are, some of the hype will seep through to them because away from training they will be meeting people at work – and even if they just go for a walk.

Jim Gavin won't be able to control everything. The Kerry management and players had no hand, act or part in the production of the infamous five-in-a-row T-shirt or the celebratory record.

Presumably they have already been told not to read newspapers, listen to the radio or watch television, but unless they all turn off their mobile phones for the summer it will be impossible to escape all the talk about the five-in-a-row.

Of course, I'm presuming that Dublin will reach the final even though this is not a foregone conclusion.

However, the biggest test will probably come in the last 15 minutes of the final, when Gavin will be powerless to exert much influence.

I note several Kerrymen have been writing recently about our failed attempt in 1982. With all due respect, the majority of them were still in short pants 37 years ago and haven't a clue about what went on.

Even though I didn't start the final I remember the pressure we felt in the lead-up. And remember – like Dublin – we were a hugely experienced side.

Most of the players had featured in six All-Ireland finals; won five All-Ireland medals and were level-headed and focussed.

Yet something strange happened to us coming down the final stretch which I still cannot explain. Let's not forget that even after Martin Furlong's penalty save Kerry still led by four points in the 65th minute. And in those days there was usually no more than three minutes of injury-time played.

So here we were on the cusp of immortality, when subconsciously we allowed ourselves to be gripped by fear. Negativity took hold. We became defensively minded and everybody tracked back. Believe me, this wasn't part of the game plan.

We decided to hold what we had. We conceded territory and possession. Remember, it was the Offaly full-back Liam Connor who hit in the ball from which Séamus Darby got his fateful goal. And the rest is history.

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Seamus Darby, Offaly (far left), celebrates his last minute goal with his fellow teammates, which denied Kerry five All Ireland Football titles in a row

Seamus Darby, Offaly (far left), celebrates his last minute goal with his fellow teammates, which denied Kerry five All Ireland Football titles in a row

So can Dublin go where no other team has ventured and win the five in a row? Who knows?

Jim Gavin can pick the right team; get his match-ups spot on and the tactics right, but he still won't know for certain how the players will react until they get to that moment when they are within touching distance of history.

The nearest sporting equivalent is the last nine holes on the final day of the Masters in Augusta.

Literally anything can happen.

What will lurk in the psyche of every Dublin footballer and fan is that there is another 'Séamus Darby' out there in the long grass, waiting for his moment to strike.

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