An All-Ireland final going to a replay is like a kid counting down the sleeps waiting for Santa Claus to deliver the presents, only to run down the stairs and burst in the sitting room door on Christmas morning to be greeted by a sign saying ‘sorry kid, we’re out of stuff, call back in two weeks’.
There isn’t much in the life of an inter-county player that is more frustrating than a drawn championship game. There you are with the ‘going-out’ clothes all neatly folded away in the bag. Work has been squared away for the following day. Your partner is all sorted and booked into the hotel and is looking forward to a great night. It’s a kind of release, a full stop, after training from January and then stressing and building yourself in anticipation for one football game, you’re ready for it to end.
You want a conclusion. But when it finishes like it did last Sunday, without a result… it is a monumental kick in the groin. I thought the sudden silence that fell in Croke Park at the final whistle beautifully captured the empty feeling of every player and supporter in the stadium. It leaves you in limbo, unsure of how to compute what has just happened.
With every draw, there is always one team more thankful than the other to get another crack at it. It’s difficult to know who that is in this scenario. Both teams were aggressive and effective defensively. But both were equally and uncharacteristically poor on the offensive side of the football.
The slippery conditions contributed to the high number of turnovers, but again, both squads will be disappointed with their negative numbers and decision making in the forward half. And that’s one aspect that Dublin usually pride themselves on. Jim Gavin, in particular, loves to talk about their ability to ‘stay engaged in the process’ and ‘sticking with the game-plan’. It’s a mantra of theirs; stay cool under fire, be composed and keep your head when all else around you are losing theirs. The Dublin player under Gavin usually stays locked in. But last weekend, we saw what seemed like significant deviations from the tried and trusted Dublin script. It started with the primary building block of that game-plan; goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton reluctance to keep going short from the kick-outs. Since Gavin took over, the Dublin kick-out has begun to travel shorter off the tee, and has become purely about retaining possession and building attacks from your full back line. It has retreated in from the midfielders, to half backs, to now having corner-backs as regular stat leaders for winning kick-outs.
But last Sunday, Mayo’s aggressive pursuit of the ball high up the pitch saw Dublin discard the tactic of ball retention off the tee and saw Cluxton launch it long into a 50:50 contest more times than we have seen from him for many years.
When the pressure really came on from Mayo, he seemed determined not to repeat his horror show against Kerry, and so opted for a safety first strategy by lumping it out the field. It was most unCluxon and unDublin like. The process had short-circuited.
And then you look at Diarmuid Connolly and Ciarán Kilkenny wrestling for the ball over on the sideline with Dublin a point up, with time evaporating. The process would say you keep the ball at all costs. Kilkenny looked to me like a guy saying ‘Dermo, gimme the f**king thing, we’ll play keep ball here for 60 seconds and we have it in the bag’. But Dermo was having none of it, ‘let me at it, I’ll have a pop. At worst I’ll kill it’.
And kill it he did, but it was an uncharacteristic and hugely significant poor decision by one of the brightest footballers in the game.
It may seem like only a small thing, but a process is only a process if it is agreed upon and carried out by everybody. Whether it was Mayo who forced them with their incessant work-rate, or Dublin who just wavered from their core principles with the finish line in sight, but they went off script in a big way in that second half, and it’s the first time we’ve seen it from them under Jim Gavin.
The Donegal defeat was different, the stayed on game-plan, but theirs was beaten by a better one. That happens. But this was very different.
For most of this epic, it would be easy to eulogise about the character displayed by both sides. It’s a word you hear thrown around indiscriminately at times to cover a plethora of intangibles of the game. Character manifests itself when you suffer two hammer blow own goals in the first-half and you still refuse to wilt. And again from trailing by three points to claw it back aned equalise in injury time. Curse be damned.
The popular narrative since Sunday is to heap praise on Mayo’s tenacity as the underdog who refused to stay down, and rightly so. But surely Dublin too deserve a huge share of the character pie after spending the majority of the game with so many of their players under-performing and still somehow finding a way to edge themselves into a winning position in injury time. It takes a special group of players to get it so wrong on the day and still not accept defeat as their lot.
You watch any American sports movies and you hear them talk about ‘leaving it all out on the field’ – another trendy catchphrase for absolute and total effort. Mayo and Dublin both delivered it from start to finish. Sure, maybe the quality of the offensive play wasn’t what we have come to expect, but the honesty of effort from both sides was as beautiful a sight as you could ever hope to see in any contest. What’s important from a players and management point of view now, is how quickly they can refocus ahead of their next joust.
It’s safe to assume, judging by the raging intensity of the battle for nearly 80 minutes last weekend neither side will lack effort or desire for the replay. Motivation won’t be an issue, which means, the replay will be significantly affected by whichever management group can pick more from the bones of Sunday. And there is plenty for the video vultures to devour. Both groups have such massive potential for improvement that it should make the sequel an intriguing tactical battle.
From a coaching perspective, these two weeks are about ensuring you make the right tactical adjustments to enable you to finish out the job. It’s about learning from Sunday, and more specifically, it’s about translating that learning into effecting positive change and ensuring understanding within the group for October 1. Now is time for Jim Gavin and Stephen Rochford to earn their crust.
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