Blues manager looks to find the right balance as side attempt to secure title again
At training on the Thursday before Dublin’s All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo, Niamh Collins pulled up lame with a groin strain.
Two days out, the immediate diagnosis wasn’t great.
At the same session in DCU, Carla Rowe and Niamh McEvoy had fitness tests.
McEvoy was adjudged sufficiently healed only for a spot on the bench. Rowe, a Footballer of the Year nominee last year, was ruled out altogether.
As build-ups to All-Ireland semi-finals go, Dublin’s was somewhere removed from ideal.
Collins has been at either centre-back or full-back for their four All-Ireland wins to date.
McEvoy, on the books of Melbourne Demons the past two years, remains a key element in this dynamic and varied Dublin attack.
Mick Bohan recently described Rowe as “the best player in the country.”
Three starters. Three figureheads.
“So it was a matter of, do you now name three ‘A.N. Others’ and tell the girls we’re going to fitness-test the three on Saturday and see how they go?” recalls Bohan. “Or do you just say, ‘No, this is what we’re going with’ and trust your squad?”
They went with the latter. Dublin won. Vindication.
Bohan is in his 19th consecutive season in inter-county coaching. He is intimately aware that all managerial functions are viewed through the filter of results.
But also, that sometimes even the right decisions, those made for the correct reasons and that contribute to victories, have consequences.
In an ecosystem as complex as an inter-county dressing-room, every action has an equal and opposition reaction.
“Then,” Bohan says, “you have someone as important to us as Carla Rowe wondering, ‘Are they not going to give me another 24 hours? Would I not be entitled to that?’
“But,” he adds, “we explained that it was more important for the rest of the group that we weren’t seen to be stuttering. That we had faith in the players ready to step up.
“And now we have the most special thing in the world to be looking forward to. Another All-Ireland final,” adds Bohan.
Going for a fifth All-Ireland title in a row might resonate longer in the national sporting consciousness were it not for the recent exploits of Dublin’s men’s footballers or, indeed, the Cork ladies.
Through those two teams, we have become accustomed to sustained periods of dominance, the hasty construction of empires.
But that doesn’t make Dublin’s achievements any less impressive or significant.
What blanket success such as Dublin’s since Bohan took over in 2017 does tend to do, however, is disguise all the effort and expertise that goes into it.
After a certain point, each win gets interpreted as an inevitability. Like a naturally quicker horse merely maintaining its gallop rather than the reward for the million decisions and countless hours that contribute to a winning season.
The evolution of this Dublin team over the past four years might seem organic. But it was up to Bohan to time those moments of change.
To empower Dublin’s new players. And to convince the “elder lemons” – as he calls them – that their contribution, though diminished in game-time, remains important.
“They’re at that stage,” he admits. “Some of them are ready for the changing of the guard and others are getting closer to the end, but still in a position to contribute hugely.
“Ultimately, regardless of who you have, if you have a group that aren’t content, all that energy disappears. So that balancing act, to keep that older crew that they still feel valued and the younger crew knowing that we trust them.”
That has been a major part of the dynamic of this year for Bohan. A distinct characteristic of Dublin’s season. They’ve all had them.
In 2017, when he came in, the team was deeply scarred from three consecutive All-Ireland final defeats.
They won at the first attempt but by the time 2018 started, they’d convinced themselves victory over Cork would be required for full redemption.
In 2019, they had a three-in-a-row to go after while last year, there was a sense that achieving something in the empty grounds and wintry conditions was worth their sacrifice.
Now? The motivation is self-explanatory.
“You have to find a quest every year before you go out,” says Bohan. “There has to be something. Because otherwise this thing flutters. And it can’t.
“There has to be something significant to go after and chase every year.
“For me, as a coach, you get the satisfaction of seeing all your work come to fruition,” he adds.
“I’d often say this to other coaches – it’s a line that the All Blacks would have used and I think it’s a brilliant saying: ‘To be a good coach, you have to be humble enough to prepare the rocket without wanting to go to the moon’.”