Any long-term solution to level the playing field needs to be a lot more thought out than just splitting Dublin into multiple teams, writes Tomás Quinn.
Six days on and the dust is just beginning to settle on another epic All-Ireland final between Mayo and Dublin.
There have been talking points aplenty, controversy and conspiracy — everything we have come to expect when these giants collide. From a Dublin perspective, the dream start of Con O’Callaghan’s sensational goal — the ability to drop from his left hand and finish with a toe poke on his right foot past David Clarke was a thing of beauty — was quickly followed with what felt like a balloon burst when Jack McCaffrey sustained a match-ending knee injury.
It has been understated how big a loss this was to Dublin and how big a challenge it was for them to adapt. McCaffrey is a vital component of the Dublin system and while he is a defender I would argue he is more important to their attacking game plan where his pace and ability to beat players and commit opposition defences creates space and opportunities for others.
It appeared like Darren Daly was considered as a like-for-like defensive replacement but it was then determined Paul Flynn was the man to be introduced. This move, in turn, saw James McCarthy go from midfield to wing back with Flynn taking his duties.
But for the next 15 minutes, it seemed that some Dublin players were in two minds as to their roles around the middle third.
Their forwards were struggling to get into the game and with Lee Keegan closing Ciarán Kilkenny down as a playmaking option and the more direct ball not sticking inside to Eoghan O’Gara and Paddy Andrews.
It left Jim Gavin with a big decision to make at half-time. Dublin know they have a strong bench but the preference would be to hold the reinforcements for as long as possible but Gavin realised he couldn’t wait any longer and introduced Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McManamon.
Their introduction also resulted in Paul Mannion moving closer to the Mayo goal where he chipped in with three crucial scores.
Connolly’s involvement was outstanding. It was obvious to me from his first play that he was in a very controlled and calm mindset and that shone through in his decision-making. He kept things simple when they needed to be but added the touches of class like a long-range score and an inch-perfect cross-field pass for Dean Rock to point in the 66th minute.
Some claim Dublin didn’t perform but is that fair? It wasn’t a complete performance along the lines of what they got close to against Tyrone but this Mayo team are a different animal. They had to deal with the loss of one of their most important players inside five minutes and while some forwards didn’t get to the level they would like, as a team, they had nearly 70% conversion rate.
That efficiency is exceptional in a game as physical and tense as it was.
From a Mayo perspective, this squad is back in a situation its been far too many times. If they were told in the build-up they would score 1-16, Mayo would rightly expect to be still partying in Castlebar at the moment.
The days after a loss when things are raw, the best place to be is in with your team mates as they are the only ones who really understand that feeling. It’ll be this weekend, when players start going back to their club teams or into work, that outside opinions start to really register. Players will hear about chances missed, they’ll be asked about key moments like the Donal Vaughan red card and the crucial kickout at the end. Dealing with these things when away from the squad environment can be very tough. Once they regroup as a squad they will likely review the game and deal with all relevant moments as they would have after each of their nine previous games to get to the final.
The big question is whether it will be Stephen Rochford and his management team that will be leading the review session. With his initial two-year period up, Rochford is said to be taking some time before making a decision to go again. I can only assume there will be no desire at county board level — or within the players — for him to move on so I would think it would be very hard to walk away now after getting so close in his two years.
One consideration will be around if there are any retirements. From the outside looking in Alan Dillon, who has been a great servant to Mayo but saw very little game time as the season progressed, might step away but I wouldn’t think there will be many more. Andy Moran, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle are some of the players who may consider their situation but providing they feel their bodies will hold up I see no reason for them to move on just yet. All three have had arguably their best years and, in the case of Moran and Boyle in particular, seem to be improving as players. Why walk away now?
Earlier this year Jim Gavin added another two years to his term as manager and I don’t think anyone in Dublin expects there to be any change in that over the winter months. He may look to freshen up some of his coaching team as he looks to continue to evolve his style of play and ability to change systems if required.
From a player perspective, Dublin will be similar to Mayo. Denis Bastick collected his fifth All-Ireland medal last Sunday — not bad going for someone who had to wait until he was 28 before making his championship debut — but didn’t feature in the latter stages of the championship and with the middle third of pitches only getting faster, it is hard to see him sticking around for another year.
I have heard mention of Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley as players who might finish up. While these three players might not be as central to the starting 15, they all still have the ability to play large roles again next year and expect them to be back.
The other talking point centred on Lee Keegan throwing his GPS unit at Dean Rock and Cormac Costello interfering with David Clarke’s kicking tees. I am not going to try and justify either incident and I am not a big fan of the ‘whatever it takes to win’ mantra, but there has to be an element of rationale given the situation the players were in.
In an ideal world, we would have a game free of cynicism and players who played strictly by the rules. But the reality is that in high-level sport — and indeed in life — people will look to push the boundaries of what is right and wrong to obtain the best possible outcome for themselves.
Considering the sacrifices Keegan and Costello have made to get to those crucial moments in an All-Ireland final I can understand how they reacted in such a manner.
I was surprised with how quickly the post-match analysis veered into discussions about whether Dublin should be split in two. Or three. Or four. I have no issue with these type of questions being asked and can understand the merits of a discussion on the future of the GAA.
I do, however, think the timing is unfair on this set of Dublin players and management and the debate takes from their incredible achievements.
If Mayo had won this topic would not have raised its head at all this week. People talk about the need to level the playing field, something we all agree would be for the good of our games but should we not be striving to level it by raising up those below rather than lowering those at the top?
Any long-term solution needs to be a lot more thought out than just splitting Dublin into multiple teams.
What we need is a realistic strategic GAA plan that deals with many of the core issues the association is facing rather than reactive pieces in the days after such an enthralling contest. Every player who left everything on the pitch in Croke Park last Sunday deserve that at least.
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