Monday 22 January 2018

Treading line between self-belief and self-indulgence

Tommy Conlon

Three heavyweight contenders for the football crown were in action last weekend but only one laid it all on the line.

On Saturday evening, Kerry came out with all guns blazing against Tyrone in Killarney. They had their reasons. But, inconveniently for them, it meant they produced a peak performance in July.

Dublin played in spasms against Meath in the Leinster final on Sunday. They scored fluently for the first 15 then coasted for the rest of the half. They plundered two goals before the break to kill the contest. They led by ten points at the end of the third quarter and promptly downed tools again for the rest of the game.

In the Ulster final, Donegal's first-half display looked like a holding operation. They coped comfortably with Down's best shots, not complacent in any way but playing within themselves. In the third quarter they put the match to bed with the goal that gave them a six-point lead. The rest was gravy, eight more points in a fourth quarter that was really just garbage time.

The contrasting attitude between two teams in the comfort zone was instructive. Pat Gilroy has shown a distaste for big showboating performances in Leinster. Dublin played with the handbrake on against Wexford in last year's final. Against Meath last Sunday, they accelerated when the scoreboard needed attention and then idled for long periods. Asked on RTE afterwards if they needed to be more ruthless, the manager replied: "Look, the time to be ruthless is later on in the year."

Donegal haven't reached this level of nonchalant authority. There is too much work to be done. Last year was about building a defensive platform, to the exclusion of almost everything else. It left them formidably difficult to break down. It also left them forbiddingly one-dimensional.

This year, as promised, they've been developing the offensive side of their game. They couldn't afford therefore to tread water last Sunday in the final quarter: they needed the practise, so the points kept coming even after Down had capitulated.

They have compiled 5-59 in their four Ulster championship games this summer. Last year they also played four games in the province for a tally of 6-41. Donegal are averaging 3.75 points more per game than in 2011. Last year they conceded 1-32 in Ulster; this year they've conceded 1-42. The glaring imbalance between defence and attack last season has clearly been tilted this season: they are conceding 2.5 points more per game than in 2011. But it's still a very healthy-looking ledger: they are averaging a hefty 18.5 points per game while conceding a still parsimonious 11.25.

Dublin's insecurities as a team have withered away; the way they handled Meath's challenge was proof of that. They are entitled to this bullet-proof confidence; it is a privilege accorded to All-Ireland champions. The nagging fear among their supporters, presumably, is that this confidence has mutated into complacency. Or, if not complacency, then an erosion of the edge that drove them to the title last year.

There is a desperation to win in first-time champions that is borderline insane. Dublin didn't have Kerry's class last September but they were the more ravenous team. This Kerry squad has had such abundant natural talent over the years that they didn't have to go to mental or physical extremes to get the job done.

They have been, and they remain, fierce competitors. The combination of the two has been sufficient in the past -- and could be again this season. The question is whether they have another peak performance left in them. They will need one more at least between here and the title.

Dublin may not be able to replicate the sort of innocent dementia that propelled them last year to the top of the mountain. They may not need to. In its place they have the confidence and experience and know-how that comes with winning the big prize. But at times last Sunday their self-belief came perilously close to self-indulgence. Gilroy's comment suggested they were just keeping their powder dry for the day when it's really needed. They have a lot of mature, honest grafters who earned their All-Ireland the hard way. They are entitled to the benefit of the doubt for now.

But Donegal are the ravenous team right now. They are on a mission. They are eating grass. Their confidence is rocketing. The group ethic is absolute. Their team play is starting to flow. It's still all new to them and they are patently loving the experience: two Ulster titles on the trot and more to come.

The reservation about them concerns the individual quality of some of their players. The team ethic and communal work rate is protecting some workaday footballers. And, ironically, it seems to be smothering their one stellar figure. Michael Murphy is a phenomenal talent but he has been subsumed into the collective; he has become another soldier ant in the colony. But he is their one player who can break a game all on his own. Against the top teams he needs to be served, not subsumed. He needs to be allowed stand apart and work his magic in his own time.

Dublin, Kerry and Donegal have shown their hands to varying degrees. Cork, meanwhile, seem as if they've been in hibernation most of the summer. Next weekend they will all have to lay their cards on the table for real.

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