Tuesday 20 March 2018

Three big management decisions will go a long way to deciding Dublin vs Mayo

Rival managers have major selection decisions to ponder around Connolly, O'Shea and Durcan

1 October 2016; Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and Dublin manager Jim Gavin shake hands following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
1 October 2016; Mayo manager Stephen Rochford and Dublin manager Jim Gavin shake hands following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

For all the potential permutations, formations and selections that can be debated leading into next weekend's final, for me three key decisions from the respective managers will have a significant bearing on the outcome.

For Jim Gavin, whilst he seamlessly plays musical chairs with his forward line, he faces a difficult decision around how he handles Diarmuid Connolly.

Stephen Rochford has two, albeit more straightforward, calls to make. Firstly, where does he play Aidan O'Shea, and secondly how does he fit Patrick Durcan into the team?

With regard to the Breaffy man, Rochford needs to keep Aidan O'Shea away from the full-forward line, despite some recent calls to the contrary. The laws of unintended consequences came to bear for the Mayo manager, when he found an added benefit to withdrawing Aidan from the forward line against Kerry.

Mayo's forwards started to move and play much more fluidly, with Andy Moran and Jason Doherty in particular relishing the added responsibility.

However, until Eoghan O'Gara possibly enters the arena in the final quarter, Rochford shouldn't contemplate putting O'Shea near the full-back position, where a tactically mobile Dublin forward unit could cruelly expose his suspect defensive positioning. Keep it simple, and play him as a third midfielder where he can disrupt Dublin's relentless dominance around the middle third.

His brother Seamus has struggled with consistency so far this year, but together along with an improving Tom Parsons, this trio should provide a sufficient physical arsenal to disrupt Brian Fenton, James McCarthy, and Ciarán Kilkenny et al from ruling the middle ground.


Patrick Durcan, unlucky to miss out on an All-Star last year, is a player made for Croke Park. Pacy, athletic and not afraid to push forward in search of a score at even the most critical of moments, Rochford has to find a place for him in the starting team.

Coming off the bench, himself and Colm Boyle have played tag team a few times already this summer, but the form and leadership qualities of the latter means he must stay on the pitch heading down the home straight next Sunday.

In the replay against Kerry, a hamstring injury to Donal Vaughan before half-time worked in Rochford's favour, as Durcan seamlessly slipped into position, leaving Rochford not having to worry about pulling Boyle ashore in the final quarter.

As a result, Mayo seldom looked more confident heading down the home stretch against blue-blooded opposition as they did that afternoon. My money is on Vaughan making way for Durcan, giving Mayo even more line-breaking power to challenge Dublin from the start. Vaughan can provide ample cover in a number of positions, should Mayo suffer any casualties over the course of the afternoon.

And Rochford can't afford to leave a player of Durcan's calibre on ice this Sunday. Mayo need to play with conviction and drive at Dublin from the start with a dismissive intensity. Durcan is the type of player that will relish this challenge.

Gavin, by all accounts, conducts operations with military precision and discipline. Whilst he would never publicly display it, internally he must have been disgusted with Connolly's lack of those aforementioned qualities against Carlow earlier this summer.

How Gavin decides to handle him this Sunday will be one of the most difficult decisions of his management career to date.

For all the revolving doors Gavin plays with his forward unit, Connolly has always been a starter during his tenure. Gavin recognises that Connolly is the type of player who needs to be afforded the time to feel his way into a game and survey his prey before landing his blows.

Unlike the immediate cut and dash of a Bernard Brogan or Cormac Costello, or the power surges of a Kevin McManamon or Michael Darragh Macauley, Connolly is one of those players who can often drift in and out of games, albeit to ruthless effect. However, it's a quality that isn't necessarily well suited to the role of impact sub.

Gavin acknowledges this, hence his preference to always have him on the field from the outset. Yet how can he justify starting him on Sunday?

During the second half of the Tyrone semi-final, I got more value observing the comings and goings on the Dublin bench, ahead of the predictable events going on out on the pitch.

Would Connolly feature or not was the question we all wanted to know.

As the clocked ticked down, it seemed destined not to be. But then on 70 minutes, on strutted the Marino man to the loudest roar of the day. For a man that does little or nothing without deep consideration, it was a strange play from Gavin.

In terms of match practice, it was of zero benefit to Connolly, who didn't touch leather for the few moments he was on the pitch.

If Gavin had wanted to give him proper game-time ahead of the final, he could have safely put him on earlier in the second half, as the game was beyond doubt at that stage. So why then give him a token run-out so late in the day?

For someone who gives the impression of being impervious to sentiment, it was a most un-Jim Gavin thing for the country's premier manager to do. Come Sunday, it will be 15 weeks since Connolly last played a competitive fixture for Dublin, and over five months since he had any meaningful action in Croke Park.

I don't care how much you talk up the intensity of internal challenge matches in terms of preparation, they are still a poor replacement for the white heat of championship action. For Gavin to start him would surely fly in the face of all the talk of the strength in depth of his panel.

At the end of the day, their almost invincible status has been furthered in his absence this summer, so the argument for having to play him, doesn't really stack up. A stronger argument could be made for leaving him out of the picture altogether, and not disrupt the balance and morale in his team.

But for all the talk about population, resources etc, it all counts for very little this Sunday as everything boils down to the respective managers' ability to maximise the performance of a maximum of 21 players over 70 odd minutes.

So tight will be the margins, as much as a dropped ball, or an untimely slip on the field of play, an incorrect judgement by either manager on the line could cost their team valuable inches in their quest to be written into the history books.

History is written by the victors, as they say, but the future is determined by great leaders. As leaders of their respective camps, both Rochford and Gavin have a few big calls to ponder this week - the impact of which could be decisive.


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