Thursday 12 December 2019

Trying to fill void left by Dublin's classic full-back Rory O'Carroll won't be an easy task

Rory O'Carroll is one of Gaelic football's great minimalists. His trick has been to make a profound impact from such a discreet presence (Photo: Sportsfile)
Rory O'Carroll is one of Gaelic football's great minimalists. His trick has been to make a profound impact from such a discreet presence (Photo: Sportsfile)
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Back in the '90s it became a popular piece of trivia to trot out that Matt Gallagher, the former Donegal full-back, had not once kicked the ball in the '92 All-Ireland final against Dublin.

Gallagher had been tasked with marking Vinny Murphy, who had discovered a rich vein of form after a couple of indifferent seasons. Murphy's aerial prowess was central to Dublin's game-plan throughout the campaign.

Murphy had struck for two goals against Clare in the semi-final and his physical presence looked like it could unnerve the Donegal full-back line.

Gallagher was a study in concentration, however, sacrificing any inclination to play ball in his dutiful policing of Murphy, who still scored two points but didn't nearly have the same impact as in previous games.


The absence of a single kick from the full-back struck quite a chord at the time. Such a statistic really resonated.

In a modern context it doesn't have nearly the same impact. No longer is it a 'remarkable' fact that a defender might not kick a ball in a full 70 minutes of Championship football.

Any analysis of Rory O'Carroll's game over the last six seasons at the heart of the Dublin defence would find that kicking the ball is quite often a last resort for the Kilmacud Crokes man acclaimed this week, in the aftermath of confirmation of his departure for a year, as the pivotal piece of the jigsaw he has become in making Dublin by far the leading team of the decade.

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O'Carroll is one of Gaelic football's great minimalists. His trick has been to make a profound impact from such a discreet presence.

In last year's All-Ireland defeat of Kerry, for instance, he had ball in hand (apart from three frees that he took) just five times, electing to kick just once - when he was intercepted, leading to Kerry's equalising fourth point.

On all other occasions he opted for the safer lay-off with the hand, often to the nearest available colleague.

A year earlier, for Dublin's defeat to Donegal he didn't once put boot to ball, preferring delivery by hand instead on the eight occasions that he had possession. Such pragmatism frames him.

In the 34 Championship games that O'Carroll has played since making his debut in a Leinster semi-final against Westmeath, he has not registered one of the 4-26 scored by Dublin defenders.

Philly McMahon, Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy, Ger Brennan and Kevin Nolan have done it liberally, even Jonny Cooper has got in on the act but it's hard to recall O'Carroll even crossing the half-way line, never mind taking a shot at goal.

In that sense he has been the consummate 'old style' full-back with a very modern veneer.

O'Carroll has developed a habit of being able to get under the skin of an opponent in the 'nicest' possible way.

In that 2014 Donegal game Neil Gallagher's frustration at being consistently 'tagged' by O'Carroll boiled over into an early yellow card. Kerry's Kieran Donaghy has had a number of running battles with him.

O'Carroll has mastered the art of being able to split his concentration between where the ball is likely to be and where his man is better than almost anyone else, and that security close to Stephen Cluxton's goal has been priceless in an understated way.

He's a scrambler who plays the percentages well, preferring to bat a ball away rather than claim the catch. Rarely will he commit too zealously to the tackle but he has walked a fine line sometimes too.

On another day he could have been penalised for challenges on Paul Geaney and Donaghy in the All-Ireland final that resulted in turnovers for Dublin and scores. The result may not have changed but that's the edge O'Carroll has lived on.

Strip out his aborted drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Mayo and those dog days for the entire Dublin defence when they shipped five goals against Meath in 2010 (only O'Carroll's second appearance at full-back) and three against Donegal in 2015 and the goal concession rate with O'Carroll in the No 3 shirt runs at 0.6 per game, 18 from 30.

Dublin will surely miss him but as Jim Gavin has already identified the 'speciality' of full-back play isn't as exclusive as it once was.

What was potentially a problem for Kerry at the beginning of the 2000s when they had to deploy their most versatile and prized defensive asset, Seamus Moynihan, to full-back for four years, ironed itself out over the following decade with Mike McCarthy, Tom O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O'Mahony all doing their turn in the position with successful outcomes.

Dublin's defence will adapt too. McMahon is an obvious replacement given his handling of particularly Aidan O'Shea in the two Mayo semi-finals.

But would that be too much of an element of restriction for a player who scored 1-11 from corner-back in his last 10 matches between League and Championship?

David Byrne and Jarlath Curley are rising prospects, Mick Fitzsimons is a defender who both Pat Gilroy and now Gavin have placed much trust in and he possesses the containment instincts to keep most defenders in check. But the bigger they are?

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