Thursday 26 April 2018

Tomás Ó Sé: There are still doubts about Jim Gavin's tactical nous

Jim Gavin and Dublin are unlikely to face a tough test until the All-Ireland semi-finals
Jim Gavin and Dublin are unlikely to face a tough test until the All-Ireland semi-finals

Tomás Ó Sé

In the build-up to a Championship match with Dublin, especially in the latter part of my career with Kerry, our preparation time was inevitably consumed by one subject more than any other.

We could set our clocks by it. Either the weekend before or the Tuesday night of the game itself, we'd pull up our chairs for an audience with Stephen Cluxton.

There are so many strings to their bow but one tune always hummed hardest in our heads that week.

Our mantra was simple: crack Cluxton's kick-outs and you went a long way to cracking Dublin.

We could spend an hour poring over his restarts, dissecting information on who received it most, how far did it travel. Even the time it took for him to place a ball - served up to him on a plate as soon as it was dead - on his tee was detailed.

It worked for us in 2009 and I'd like to think we had a lot of success in 2011 and 2013.

Stephen Cluxton is one of the most important footballers of a generation
Stephen Cluxton is one of the most important footballers of a generation

But, like water, he generally finds a way.

Read more: Should behind-closed-doors games be banned after Dubs controversy?

Read more: When I hear Kerry talking about Dublin football, I take it with a pinch of salt - Gavin

One year we had the wings covered where Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn now, and Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan before them, liked to swoop.

Our policy was to mark space rather than the man, basketball-style. Declan Sullivan was brilliant at conducting it, always communicating.

But this day Cluxton read what we were at and went shorter. He was chipping it out just to the 13-metre line, inviting us to step up to a line we hadn't expected.

No need for consultation with the line, no need for conversation with anyone.

He saw it unfold and acted on it. Great leadership. Like an experienced angler working a reel to tempt fish into deeper waters.

I've said it before but it's worth repeating that he is the most influential Gaelic footballer of his generation.

Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly benefits from Cluxton's kick outs
Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly benefits from Cluxton's kick outs

His worth to Dublin was never more evident than in Killarney for this year's League match with Kerry when their kick-out bordered on calamitous. In his absence, water didn't find a way. They lost.

He has changed the game. Others have followed.

Notably I feel there has been some reconnection with goalkeepers and their 'middle eight' so far this season. They've tended to go longer as teams push up higher.

Playing Dublin, it's always first base, the fundamental question to push up or sit back.

I imagine now it's a choice Fermanagh will already have made. Like deciding on your preferred weapon of execution. Either way, it's eventually going to lead to the same outcome.

That's not being dismissive of Fermanagh, it's reality. They'll see themselves better equipped to sit back and draw Dublin on, just as Westmeath did in the Leinster final. Make life hard for them, just like they have done all year.

It amounts to a tacit admission though that they're not here to win the game. When you concede the kick-out to Cluxton, you have effectively decided your fate.

That said, Dublin still don't look entirely comfortable dealing with the puzzle of the defensive ramparts placed in front of them.

Tyrone had them in a knot in the League. On that wet night in March, when the world of Gaelic football got itself into a frenzy, it took them a long time to get to grips with what Derry brought to the table.

Did I detect a little impatience in the first half of the Leinster final? Look, they won the game well in the end and maybe we shouldn't be picking holes.

They got to road-test how they might play against a better defensive structure in the second half when they controlled possession and pinged it over and back.

I've been wondering about their mindset in a week like this. The greatest challenge to them is themselves and they've carried it well.

But you sense they can't get the kind of satisfaction Kerry will have got from beating Cork in Killarney the last day. Business has become almost too routine for them.

It's one of Jim Gavin's strengths to be able present each match they play as one that must be pursued with total conviction.

The perception that a Dublin football manager has some kind of armchair ride as an inter-county manager with players, financial muscle and the logistics of having the capital city at his fingertips belies the task they have to gee themselves up week in, week out for games like this.

How do you keep a dressing-room with so much quality together in the right frame of mind, when you are consistently winning games by double-digit margins, many done and dusted in the opening few minutes?

Gavin has been a hugely successful manager. You can't argue with seven cups from eight competitions.

But, for me, there are still question marks out there about his tactical nous. And until he takes down a team of Donegal's stature playing a defensive game, maybe Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final minding the house better than the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, those question marks will remain.

They'll win here by a margin of 10 points and upwards. But what benefit will it be to them? Their hardest games this year have been in the League or their own in-house affairs.

By comparison, Kerry have had two of the toughest games in Munster that they've had in five years.

But, in my mind, Dublin are still best placed to reclaim an All-Ireland title provided they avoid the probability of Mayo's 'left hook' swinging for them in a semi-final.

Kerry will be forewarned and forearmed for Kildare. At least they should be, not like us in 1998 when they turned us over in the All-Ireland semi-final.

I was a substitute that day and my sense of it was that we treated the challenge too lightly. They were Leinster champions but tradition was our plate of armour. It couldn't be pierced.

We had a goal disallowed in the second half, a perfectly legitimate one, we felt. Páidí turned around to the dugout and threw his hands in the air. "We're f****d if that's going to happen," he declared. And we were.

I don't see the challenge being treated lightly this time. Paul Cribbin and Niall Kelly will get the attention they deserve.

By now Kerry will have selected their team and I'd expect Donaghy will still be there. If he is, it's the right call. Donaghy always responds well to a bit of personal pressure and if he's feeling it now after being hauled ashore the last day, there'll be a response.

Anyway, I still feel Gooch is not yet up to Gooch standards. But he's getting there.

I've been impressed with the bit of steel Kevin Walsh has put into Galway this season but I still see them falling short against Donegal. Karl Lacey is out, Michael Murphy has had his problems but Donegal did enough in the second half against Monaghan to suggest they can quickly pick it up.

Read more: Should behind-closed-doors games be banned after Dubs controversy?

Read more: When I hear Kerry talking about Dublin football, I take it with a pinch of salt - Gavin

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