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Spotlight on Dessie, rookies on the rise and the marquee men still missing - Dublin's half-term report


Dan O'Brien of Dublin in action against Conor McCarthy of Monaghan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dan O'Brien of Dublin in action against Conor McCarthy of Monaghan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile


Dan O'Brien of Dublin in action against Conor McCarthy of Monaghan. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dessie Farrell knows what it's like to be a Dublin player under a new manager, facing Monaghan at home in February, and heading for the sanctuary of the dressing-room at half-time with the world seemingly about to cave in.

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It happened in 1998, when the Tom Carr era had the most inglorious of Parnell Park starts against flying Farney men.

Carr had been parachuted into a role he could never have foreseen only months beforehand, but Mickey Whelan's resignation after shipping abuse from the terraces after a pre-Christmas league defeat to Offaly changed everything.

It's fair to surmise that, last November, Dessie Farrell didn’t think he’d be the subject of a mid-term report after the first three rounds of this year’s Allianz Football League.

The one big difference, of course, is that Jim Gavin departed with plaudits ringing in his ears ... and with his successor facing the ultimate challenge: how do you possibly better five-in-a-row perfection?

Twenty-two long years ago, Dublin were recent All-Ireland champions whose post-’95 fall from grace had been steep and stark.

And the honeymoon period didn't last particularly long for Carr, whose first outing when the league resumed after Christmas got off to the rockiest of Donnycarney starts.

His team - skippered by Farrell for the entirety of his near-four-year reign - trailed a rampant Monaghan by 2-8 to 0-5 at the break.

A nine-point chasm. Sound familiar?

There is a world of difference, however, between the Dubs of ’98 and the Dubs of 2020. And Saturday night in Croke Park underlined that.

Whereas the ’98 version still ended up losing by 2-12 to 0-12 to Monaghan, this year's model conspired to produce the most scarcely believable of deadlocks from a position of half-time penury (trailing by nine) and agony on the hour (still down by nine).


Dublin manager Dessie Farrell. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile


It leaves them still unbeaten, with four points from three very different games. A solid start with loads to work on; just as the new boss might want it.

This long-time Dublin observer couldn’t remember a more passive, even submissive, first half performance by a team in Sky Blue since 2012, when they were steamrolled by Mayo in Castlebar.

Yes, it was only the league; it was only Farrell's third outing; it was clear that Dublin are not physically up to pace ... and nor do they need to be, just yet.

Yet Monaghan were so aggressive without the ball, and so dynamic on it, that it was proving the most sobering of reality checks for the embattled hosts - especially the rookie members of their attack, who were either being swamped in the tackle or totally bypassed.

The manner in which Dublin upped their intensity levels in the second half was, you suspect, the minimum requirement demanded by Farrell in the dressing-room.

The performance was still well bellow the benchmark we have come to expect from this team ... but what transpired in the home straight was a glorious reminder of what makes this group special.

It's not that they are unbeatable - Monaghan laid bare their fallibility. Rather, they never know when they are beaten.

Not for the first time in this campaign, old stagers James McCarthy and Dean Rock left their calling cards. Not for the first time in his decorated career, Kevin McManamon came off the bench to pilfer a vital late goal in front of Hill 16.

But Farrell may derive even more encouragement from the fact that one of the young guns, Seán Bugler, was the catalyst for this unlikeliest of stalemates.

Play to the final whistle: it's part of their DNA.


Seán Bugler kicked 0-3 off the bench for Dublin in the 1-15 to 1-15 draw with Monaghan. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Seán Bugler kicked 0-3 off the bench for Dublin in the 1-15 to 1-15 draw with Monaghan. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile


Dessie in the spotlight

Dessie Farrell has been around enough Dublin dressing-rooms - victorious and vanquished ones, united and sometimes less so - to appreciate the scale of the challenge he has inherited.

As he remarked at his inaugural media conference: "You’re moving up into the Premiership here for sure ... I’m going into this with eyes wide open in terms of the scale of what’s involved and the demands that are there."

Those same eyes may well have been agog as he surveyed Dublin's surprising lethargy and disarray for the opening 35 minutes against Monaghan.

For the second week running, the new boss was far more encouraged by what he saw in the second half compared to what he witnessed in the first.

Those slow starts are bound to be a source of minor irritation, and will offer plenty of training ground ammunition before facing Donegal in 12 days' time.

Yet the fact remains that Farrell - effectively operating with two-thirds of last year's five-in-a-row team - has still garnered four points from a possible six and remains unbeaten.

That qualifies as a relatively healthy return when you consider his late appointment, Dublin's even later return to collective training and the fact that he has been road-testing a queue of wannabe Dubs in the past three weeks.

The lessons on that front have been mixed, with Dublin's first half dysfunctionality most glaring in attack, where most of the newcomers have been blooded. Thus, they had tallied just 0-5 by the midpoint in Mayo and only 0-3 against Monaghan.

As for tactical tweaks, we have yet to discern any clear evidence of a major shift under Farrell's command.

James McCarthy has reverted to half-back, having finished the last three championships at midfield - but this hardly qualifies as reinventing the wheel and McCarthy, in any event, has flourished thus far.

Brian Howard has played an orthodox midfield role - again, scarcely a radical move. He was actually listed at No 6 on Saturday, but didn't stay there.

Ciarán Kilkenny, meanwhile, was named at midfield against Monaghan but likewise didn't play there.


John Small of Dublin in action against Dessie Ward of Monaghan. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

John Small of Dublin in action against Dessie Ward of Monaghan. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile


Kilkenny has spent periods at full-forward, against Kerry and Mayo - but for even longer spells he has been playing further outfield, in his more familiar role of roving 'quarter-back'.

You suspect that, tactically, Farrell will stick to what Dublin do best ... but he has also stressed the need to "look forward", not back. As he warned last month: “We can’t afford to be complacent, we can’t afford to stagnate."

Bugler top rookie on the rise

Unlike several fellow wannabes, Seán Bugler has yet to start a league match this season ... yet his impact has been greater than any of them.

The St Oliver Plunkett's/Eoghan Ruadh clubman had a busy first night against Kerry, making three separate cameos between blood and permanent substitutions.

He didn't feature in Mayo but entered the Croke Park fray after 42 minutes on Saturday night, his team trailing by seven.

What he contributed in the home straight - 0-3 from play and a punched assist for Kevin McManamon’s goal - was due reward for his pivotal role in the comeback.

It was no surprise to anyone who has followed Bugler’s progress; it may have been a dead-rubber in Omagh last August, but even then he showed himself to be a player for the immediate future, one who can function in the half-forward line or closer to goal.

Other rookies have seen more game-time in the first three rounds, but their contribution has revealed not just flickers of promise but a lack of experience.

Dan O’Brien was a surprise call-up in Castlebar and the first half passed him by, but he came alive on the restart with a fine point.

O’Brien scored again in the midst of Dublin’s first half malaise against Monaghan, but two other attempts - one skewed wide from a low percentage position, another blocked down - suggested he still has plenty to learn.

Most of Farrell’s experimentation has been up front but Liam Flatman (who featured early last season before injury struck) has been given his opportunity in defence, off the bench in Mayo and from the start on Saturday.

It was a testing night, scarcely all his fault as untracked Monaghan runners poured through from deep.

Up front, Aaron Byrne had enjoyed two lively point-scoring cameos up until Saturday's reality-check, when he came on and was later subbed himself, having been turned over once too often. Dara Mullin, a left-field inclusion, had one of those unfortunate debuts, stranded on the fringes.

But it was a more profitable night for the returning Colm Basquel, who is likely to get some more chances in the second half of the league.

Overall, Farrell pronounced himself "happy" with the new brigade but added.

The mainstays of 2020

The new Dublin supremo has already road-tested 26 players in the first three rounds, but his reliance on the same core group is reflected in the statistics.

Ten players have started all three games; nine of them have finished all three as well. The tenth - Eoin Murchan - only came off during stoppage-time in Mayo nine days ago.

Nine of those mainstays started last year's All-Ireland final replay: David Byrne, Murchan, John Small and James McCarthy in defence; the two Brians, Fenton and Howard, in the engine room; Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny and Dean Rock up front.

The tenth ever-present is Evan Comerford, who has shown himself to be a pretty able deputy even for someone so indispensable as Stephen Cluxton.

The netminder had a few kick-out wobbles in the first half against Monaghan, but his point-blank save from Ryan McAnespie helped to ensure that the game wasn't completely beyond redemption at the break.

As Dublin laboured likely rarely before in that first half, you'd struggle to pinpoint any of the outfield regulars for rising above the collective ennui.

But once they raised the intensity bar, it was no surprise to see the comeback propelled by the usual suspects.

As McCarthy drove forward from half-back at every opportunity, you got the sense of a leader who had almost been affronted by that first half performance. For the third consecutive outing, the Ballymun powerhouse made the scoresheet.

Even though Kilkenny has pushed him very close and Rock has been a model of metronomic consistency, McCarthy is our choice for Dublin's most influential player in this initial block of league fixtures.

Others have excelled at different times. Fenton was at his regal point-scoring best against Kerry but less involved thereafter.

Small has reaffirmed his flinty importance to the cause at centre-back.

Scully has done what Scully always does, running hard for 80 minutes, and invariably good for a bonus point.

Speaking of points, Byrne emerged as Saturday's unlikely equalising hero: a full-back determined to take Dublin's destiny into his own hands.

Mick Fitzsimons has started alongside Byrne for the last two games and, notwithstanding a harsh black card against Mayo and an early goal trauma in Conor McManus's slipstream, he has been typically steady.

For Paul Mannion, yet to score after three cameo appearances, the new year has been more of a slow-burner.

Marquee men still missing

If you want a reminder of what Dublin have been missing over the last few weeks, just ask yourself the following question: Who were the three nominees for 2019 Footballer of the Year?

The answer, of course, is Stephen Cluxton, Con O'Callaghan and Jack McCaffrey.

This All Star trio have yet to feature in any of Farrell's initial match-day squads.

The good news is that all three will be available for the matches that matter in high-summer. When they are ready to return, however, is less clearcut, although O'Callaghan (inset)should be fit relatively soon if the initial diagnosis of his shoulder injury proves accurate.

Dublin's destroyer-in-chief came a cropper in the warm-up before UCD's Sigerson Cup victory over Jordanstown last month.

Back in mid-January, a Dublin team spokesperson suggested a lay-off of between four and five weeks, adding: "The injury is not as serious as first suspected. However, he will require a period of rest and rehab for a number of weeks."

All of which, you suspect, was a source of relief to members of the Full-Backs Union from the Kerry, Mayo and Monaghan branches.

Dessie Farrell has already confirmed (a) the good news that Cluxton has recommitted for a 20th season at senior level; and (b) the rider that recent shoulder surgery will keep the 38-year-old ‘keeper sidelined until “towards the end of March”.\u0009

That means he will miss most if not all of the league.

When McCaffrey resurfaces is more of a mystery, although the flying doctor’s relocation to Kilkenny in January for a six-month stint working in St Luke's Hospital may offer some clue behind his lack of game-time.

As McCaffrey revealed, just before he made the move: "That's kind of why I met Dessie the other day, and where we left it was just that - I'll see how things go (in Kilkenny) for the first couple of days, get a feel for things and then probably sit down again with him and target specific dates it would be important to be available for."

Several other All-Ireland veterans have yet to resurface under Farrell, including Jonny Cooper, Diarmuid Connolly, Cian O'Sullivan (recently photographed at the Super Bowl) and Michael Darragh Macauley.

The latter started last year's drawn decider but has been sidelined with a groin injury that he carried over from Ballyboden's lengthy club campaign.

How the numbers are adding up


21: Dean Rock (right) 2-15 (1-0 pen, 13f)

5: Ciarán Kilkenny 0-5 (1m), Kevin McManamon 1-2

4: Brian Fenton, James McCarthy 0-4 each

3: Niall Scully, Seán Bugler 0-3 each

2: Conor McHugh (1m), Dan O’Brien, Aaron Byrne 0-2 each

1: John Small, Colm Basquel, David Byrne 0-1 each


A total of 26 players have featured during the first three games. Injury-time minutes excluded, ten-minute sin bin penalties factored in.

210 mins: Evan Comerford, David Byrne, John Small, James McCarthy, Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, Niall Scully, Ciarán Kilkenny, Dean Rock (started and finished 3 games), Eoin Murchan (3 starts, subbed v Mayo 74 mins).

131 mins: Mick Fitzsimons (2 starts)

118 mins: Kevin McManamon (2 starts, 1 sub)

107 mins: Dan O’Brien (2 starts, 1 sub)

101 mins: Conor McHugh (2 starts)

86 mins: Paul Mannion (3 sub)

75 mins: Aaron Byrne (3 sub)

64 mins: Philly McMahon (1 start), Liam Flatman (1 start, 1 sub)

59 mins: Seán Bugler (2 sub plus 2 blood sub)

55 mins: Paddy Andrews (2 starts)

54 mins: Rory O’Carroll (1 start, 1 sub)

46 mins: Eric Lowndes (1 start)

35 mins: Dara Mullin (1 start)

18 mins: Colm Basquel (1 sub)

15 mins: Paddy Small (1 sub)

0 mins*: Cillian O’Shea (injury-time sub)


Red: Eric Lowndes (left) (Kerry, black + yellow)

Black: Eric Lowndes (Kerry), Mick Fitzsimons (Mayo)

2 Yellows: Eoin Murchan (Mayo, Monaghan)

1 Yellow: Philly McMahon, Eric Lowndes, John Small, James McCarthy, Ciarán Kilkenny, Kevin McManamon (all Kerry), Niall Scully (Mayo), Paul Mannion (Monaghan)

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