In the summer of 1995, during the filming of Space Jam, Warner Bros constructed a state-of-the-art inflatable dome in their VIP parking lot, fitted with a regulation size basketball court.
It was a non-negotiable for Michael Jordan.
Jordan had just returned to the game he had fallen out of love with after almost a year and a half away from it and he didn’t fancy another idle off-season. So the call went out across the country for a pick-up game and they flocked to the ‘Jordan Dome’, from college stars, to pros, to NBA greats like Reggie Miller and Tim Hardaway.
After a day of filming, every night from 7pm to 10pm a group of men with different affiliations, contracts, physical levels, and different career concerns, just showed up, shut up, and played the game.
Those scrimmages became legendary. Tough, competitive, aggressive, long. They didn’t stop until they wanted to stop. They didn’t hold back on the shit talk either because, for a few hours every evening, all that mattered was winning the ball and doing something with it. No rehearsed moves to remember, no crowd to impress, no coach calling a tactical timeout. It was stripped back basketball, the one they used to know. Beat your man, get to the basket.
It was fun.
Sunday looked like fun for Dublin. Primal, instinctive joy. Football the way their DNA knows how to play it. Fun, like they haven’t had for a while now.
When Armagh came to Dublin on the last Saturday night of January, it set the tone for what would be a gruelling league campaign. Kieran McGeeney’s men cut through them with verve, they hit them hard and, worse, they predicted Dublin’s passing patterns – and either blocked the space or nailed them.
The next training session in the capital was a hard, dogged one but with a trip to their great rivals Kerry the following weekend, there wasn’t much time to cram and they lost by seven in Tralee. Then they lost to their other rivals Mayo at home. Then the neighbours gathered in Newbridge to see them tortured.
For the first time in a long time, Dublin were having to swallow losses. They had a changing room that was behind at half time and full time in four successive games. They were having to experience those punishment beatings on the training pitch and everything else that comes with bad form – like doubts. They were feeling injuries when once they might not have even noticed and they had a manager talking about transition.
Add it all up and it’s no surprise they finished bottom of Division One, but in less than two months, there’s an entirely different feeling around the camp.
The reality is that they were always going to come through Wexford and Meath to make the Leinster final. They’ve played Meath four times in the last four championship campaigns now and have beaten them by an average of 16.5 points per match. When Monaghan were finishing Dublin off in March though, it didn’t seem like there’d be the same kind of buzz two games later.
Maybe they have the team trip to Portugal to thank for it. Maybe they had it out, got it all on the table on that training camp after the league. Maybe they bonded, maybe they got to reset and did some good work. Maybe a bit of it all.
And maybe 'Dessie Ball' deserves some credit too.
Dessie Farrell took on a job in 2020 that he couldn’t really improve on. Jim Gavin created history and then left the post late, Farrell took up the reins at short notice and entered into a Covid-hit season and he kept everything pretty much the same because why would you change an operation that had just delivered five back-to-back All-Irelands?
He had to replace Jack McCaffrey and did it with Robbie McDaid and the only stamp, as such, he put on the team was Paddy Small instead of Paul Mannion and introducing Sean Bugler in place of Brian Howard – but just because he could.
And last season, they weren’t good. Unforced errors, sloppy plays, predictable set plays culminated in a semi-final loss to Mayo and they followed that up with relegation.
So something had to change. And here it is.
What is 'Dessie Ball' in a nutshell?
Move the ball, or get moving with the ball.
Fast, direct, intent.
How is it different to what they were doing?
Against Meath, Dublin were a world apart from the static, lateral, risk-averse side they had become. It was like their attacks were timed and had to be finished before the clock ran down.
During recent years, their play was largely about not surrendering the ball to packed defences, so they moved it down one lane, recycled, quarterback, down another lane and they went through that process until space eventually opened up.
'Dessie Ball' is more impatient. Every time someone got the ball, he looked up and scanned the forward line. If he didn’t move it forward directly, he drove forward himself immediately.
Give me an example.
They kicked to contests, they challenged the forwards to win tough ball, they weren’t as precious about possession.
James McCarthy came down the right wing and saw Cormac Costello coming towards him with Eoin Harkin side by side. Normally, that pass wouldn’t be used because it simply didn’t need to be. Normally, McCarthy would come inside, Dublin would keep hold of the ball with 100 per cent passes instead of anything less, and 30-60 seconds later, something easier and safer would come up. On Sunday, McCarthy kicked to Costello anyway and the forward won a tough, contested ball, beat his man along the end line and scored.
Moments before the Dublin goal, Michael Fitzsimons lofted a diagonal ball in over the top to Con O’Callaghan who won his mark but refused to take it, opted instead to carry on. For the actual goal, Brian Fenton lofted a near identical pass into O’Callaghan – only with a bit more control – O’Callaghan won it in behind and won the penalty.
What are the principles of 'Dessie Ball'?
Look up. Immediately.
If the kick pass is on, take it. If it isn’t on, move it.
You only have a set amount of time to shoot.
Forwards, win your ball.
Don’t be afraid to lose it, as long as you’re trying to attack. If Dublin are playing full-throttle attack, it disrupts the other team enough anyway that you can afford to give the ball away.
And, finally, if Con O’Callaghan is free, give it to him.
Is 'Dessie Ball' a good thing?
Dublin’s performance against Meath was easily their best of the Dessie Farrell era. It had an identity, it had a viciousness to it, and it was based on hurting the other team – not worrying about them having the ball or taking it off you.
They attacked quickly and directly and didn’t let up. We’ve seen Dublin rout teams too often in the past but this was an enjoyable watch, so much so that suddenly a neutral could root for this winning machine again somehow.
Are there any weaknesses?
Of course. And if Jordan Morris had been more clinical, he could’ve exposed Michael Fitzsimons twice when he was in after two long balls.
If Dublin commit to 'Dessie Ball' – and we’re yet to see if they will – they’ll have to rely sometimes on strong one-on-one defending, which often spooks managers in big games.
What they’d really be relying on though is scoring more than the opposition which they can always do with these players in this setup.
Can they win the All-Ireland?
Dublin don’t need to be better than 2017 Dublin. Or 2019 Dublin. They just need to be better than Kerry or Galway or Mayo or the best from Ulster and they are comfortably at that level.
Drop James McCarthy back into the team with Howard and John Small alongside him at half back, bring back Con O’Callaghan into that unbelievable spine with Kilkenny and Fenton and Dublin were always automatically starting with some of the best players in the country. It was just a question of whether they could get firing again.
'Dessie Ball' looks like the best way of doing that, moving them away from what no longer works as effectively, putting them back on the front foot where they haven’t been for too long.
And it looks like a much needed mentality shift away from the rhythms and set plays and away from the stuff they were getting wrong when circumstances were getting worse.
It’s stripped back. It’s football as they used to know it. Win the ball, get it to the posts. It looks like a dangerous Dublin with intent and purpose. It looks like a much, much needed shot in the arm.
It looks like fun again.