Saturday 18 January 2020

Peter Canavan details the brilliant story that epitomises all that is great with Dublin football

Forward coach's good work gives Gavin extra weapon against massed defences

Dublin manager Jim Gavin
Dublin manager Jim Gavin
Jason Sherlock watches on ahead of last summer’s semi-final against Mayo. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

There's a story I heard recently and for me it sums up the current Dublin football regime. A friend of a friend brings his six-year-old down to training at Ballyboden St Enda's on a Saturday morning and it being one of the biggest nurseries in the country, it's packed with kids.

The numbers are large, but everything is well-organised and the bunch of lively 'eager beavers' is broken up into groups of seven or eight. There's an army of coaches who stand at different stations, teaching one particular skill to each group. After about four minutes a whistle blows, and the groups move onto their next station.

So, here's my man watching his young fella and after doing the 'pick-up' for four minutes, he moves onto the kick-pass. He looks out at the coach and he does a double-take.

There's a natural giddiness among the group, but this coach has quickly caught their attention - there's a 'shush' as they listen intently to his every word.

"It couldn't be," the father asks himself, before taking one step closer and answering his own question: "By God, it is Jim Gavin!"

That is the thing with Dublin footballers under Gavin - he treats every task and everyone the same, be it sending out the best footballers in the country in front of 82,000 or teaching the basics to the next generation down at the club.

What you see is what you get. And what you get if you are part of his set-up is a lot of humility and an understanding that you are a cog in the wheel, and you're left in no doubt the work of each cog is essential if it is to go forward.

Tomorrow, Donegal stand in their way of an All-Ireland semi-final date with Kerry.

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Dublin's Bernard Brogan goes to ground
Bernard Brogan in action against Kerry during the 2015 final

For all their great rivalry with the Kingdom, Donegal are the team who've had the greatest influence on how Dublin play. The landmark 2011 All-Ireland semi-final, in which Pat Gilroy's team inched their way to a 0-8 to 0-6 victory, and the corresponding fixture three years later, which saw Gavin's men torn asunder, were lessons taken on board. Things had to change and they have.

One of the key changes that have been made is the addition of Jason Sherlock as a forwards coach. He joined the backroom team in December 2014 and, for me, his influence is now only really coming to bear and it can be seen in how the sleight of hand has improved in the Dublin attack.

Under pressure from mass defences, I've noticed how the forwards are now able to move the ball much quicker and you will often see them recycling the ball in 'pods' of three like a basketball team - handpassing in a circle until one of them spots a gap.

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Jason Sherlock watches on ahead of last summer’s semi-final against Mayo. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Dublin coach Jason Sherlock

Of course, Jayo played basketball to a very high level and will be well aware that developing fast hands - a skill often overlooked by many teams - is something that can be worked on in training with the right drills.

They're called 'drills' for a reason because they have to be repeatedly drilled into players, until it becomes second nature. The hard work is paying off. It's rare now that you see a Dublin forward going on a gung-ho solo run which will take him into a tackle - instead, he's looking to offload, create space and make himself available to take the return.

This ploy will need to be carried out with precision if Dublin are to come out on top because, unlike many other teams, Donegal will have no fear whatsoever of taking them on in Croke Park.

They also possess game intelligence for the big day and the players will go into it with an attitude that come the final whistle they will be carried out on their shields.

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Dublin’s Kevin McManamon and Donegal’s Ryan McHugh will be key men for their respective counties in Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Ryan McHugh in action against Dublin

Rory Gallagher's men get plenty bad press and have been labelled a negative team, yet if you were to do a highlights package of the championship to date, the goals of Odhran Mac Niallais, points of Ryan McHugh in the Ulster final and performance of Paddy McBrearty last Saturday would feature prominently.

They've a lot a going for them heading into this game and I wouldn't read too much into their first-half performance against Cork.

You could see they hadn't fully recovered mentally from their Ulster final defeat as there was no intensity in the tackle in that 35 minutes. It was, with apologies to the Oxford English Dictionary, a very un-Donegal display.

After the half-time team talk, they were more themselves and Cork weren't allowed the same space.

McBrearty's point-taking was breathtaking and his performance reminded me of Owen Mulligan in the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin. We call it 'Midas football' - everything he touched turned to gold and the players around him quickly realised it was a matter of giving him the ball.

For all of McBrearty's brilliance, Ryan McHugh has been their best forward this summer and his ability to cover ground is crucial to their game-plan. He also did damage to Dublin two years ago, so Gavin will be acutely aware that his influence will have to be curbed. What approach he takes will be interesting.

In the Leinster final, his half-back line sat back during the first half and Westmeath were, by and large, able to nullify the attacking threat.

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Ciaran Kilkenny continues the hand-passing sequence, under pressure from Meath’s Cillian O’Sullivan, as Dublin wind down the clock with a keep-ball exercise on Sunday. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Dublin star Ciaran Kilkenny

At half-time Gavin took off Eric Lowndes, switched Ciaran Kilkenny to half-back and brought on Paddy Andrews. It was a bold move and paid off as it gave the team forward momentum from the back.

But bearing in mind how the Dublin half-back line were caught out by pushing too far forward two years ago, can he risk it? Especially, as he doesn't have Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy is battling to be fit.

You can also be sure that Michael Murphy will be placed on the edge of the square at some stage, and high, diagonal balls will be pumped in.

This will be interesting as the Dublin full-back line struggled with the ball-winning abilities of Westmeath's John Heslin, and they've not truly been tested since the departure of Rory O'Carroll. I'd expect that Philly McMahon will be asked to keep a hand on Murphy and Jonny Cooper is likely to go with McBrearty.

It will also be intriguing to see how the physical battle develops. Westmeath only scratched the surface the last day and the Dublin reaction wasn't good.

When Diarmuid Connolly had his tail pulled, as Darragh ó Sé put it, he didn't like it one bit - instantly grabbing James Dolan in a headlock. But I think Dublin just weren't ready for it. You can be sure they will be ready for everything Donegal throw at them tomorrow.

By the midway point of the second half, Donegal are likely to have thrown everything they have at them, and by then, I believe their ageing players - despite what Jim McGuinness might argue about their age profile - will have little more to give.

That's when Gavin will start rolling in the talent from his bench, a luxury which Gallagher just doesn't have, and that strength in depth will seal another Dubs v Kerry date.

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