‘I think Dublin will get their match-ups better aligned today’

‘I think Dublin will get their match-ups better aligned today’
Jim Gavin.

Have Kerry left it after them? Will Dublin be much better this evening? Diarmuid Connolly? David Clifford?

Dr Pat O’Neill was the wing-back on the great Dubs side of the seventies, and manager when they won the 1995 All-Ireland with an energetic wing-forward called Jim Gavin. His diagnosis?

“That seems to be the consensus, that Kerry left it after them, but you could also look at the other side of that equation, that Dublin did well to survive in the situation they found themselves in.

“There’s probably a little bit of both, really. Kerry took the advantage late on, leading by a point, but they weren’t able to push on.

"Dublin did defend in those last few minutes very well, they were very impressive in terms of their energy and intensity and might have won it.

“They had a couple of efforts late on, a couple of possibilities that you’d expect them normally to take, though they didn’t.”

They were playing with 14 men at that point, of course. Was he pessimistic or confident when Jonny Cooper was sent off late in the first half?

“That would have been a time of hope rather than confidence,” says O’Neill.

“Croke Park is a big place, and when you get a high-intensity game like the drawn match, with both sides really going at each other, a very high level — I wasn’t optimistic.

In fact, I was quite amazed midway through the second half when Dublin went four or five points ahead, that they seemed to be nailing it down — the Kerry goal came then, and it appeared to come from two Dublin errors, really.

“That’s the problem at that level. Historically you can see it over the decades, that the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win the game.”

That principle has stood the test of time, but the notion that Dublin will dominate forever is a little newer.

Supporters in the capital are fond of pointing out that it took the capital’s footballers from 1995 to 2011 to win a senior title.

O’Neill can say now with the benefit of hindsight that it was a surprise they took so long to return to the promised land.

“It was, though in fairness they were knocking around the top eight, the top four for most of that period, even if they didn’t get into a final to lose one.

"You’d have thought there might be an impetus from that early-nineties side, which was quite good even if it might not have had the depth of the current squad in terms of numbers of equal capacity.”

They were still very competitive: O’Neill sketches a quick history of a side which served its apprenticeship before eventual glory.

“They were very unlucky to lose that four-game series against Meath in 19991, largely through their own inefficiencies — that was a Meath side which came within two points of Down in that year’s All-Ireland final, and might have won if Colm O’Rourke had been fully fit.

“I thought Dublin were a little better than that Meath side but they just didn’t have the killer instinct.

“The next year was something similar, winning by five points against Derry in the All-Ireland semi-final before Derry came back to won by a point, and won the All-Ireland.”

By 1994 O’Neill was on the sideline as Down edged Dublin out in the All-Ireland final, 1-12 to 0-13, and doesn’t spare himself from criticism:

“We gave Down a serious head start that day, and as a management team we probably contributed to that with some of our match-ups, particularly in putting Paul Curran on Mickey Linden.

“Paul was unlucky — he was a natural half-back rather than a corner-back — but we had our reasons. In the second half of our league game against Down he’d picked up Mickey Linden and done very well. Mickey was Down’s key forward, obviously.

“The following year we won it, winning probably the worst All-Ireland final we ever played in, but a win is a win, we took it. We had that game in our control, too, but again we nearly lost it when Tyrone had an extra man.

“That was the Nineties. We were knocking around, even if there was a bit of a vacuum after those players went. But there were good teams around as well at that time — good Kerry teams, good Tyrone teams, good Cork teams.”

All of that experience gives O’Neill a lot of sympathy for the man who has to wear the manager’s top:

“You're always looking at a game with your own critical assessment, but you’re also aware of the difficulties involved for players and management. Dublin have been pretty exceptional over eight years or so now.

"I don’t think managers ever give much thought to the opinions in the crowd behind them because they’re so busy. The time goes so fast — that always amazed me as a manager, how short the time was and how quickly it disappeared during a game.

“For the first time there’s been a little bit of a critique of the Dublin team selection and the on-field management the first day against Kerry, but you can’t get it right every day for eight years!”

O’Neill expands on what he means by the ‘difficulties involved’ for both players and managers.

“These aren’t machines. There are all sorts of factors that come into consideration here. A colleague of mine is a big fan of horse racing, and he often says you don’t know what’s going on in the physiology of the horse on a particular day.

“In any sport, equine or otherwise, there are all these variables — we only see the sport, but there are domestic pressures, social pressures, the everyday commitments of life that go along with the elite level sport.

“There are multifaceted issues, and they do come up. I know that from my own time, and that’s when you need the assistance of others to help with those. That’s multiplied in latter years, high-level teams have a lot of people involved to address issues like that.”

He echoes his old captain and teammate Tony Hanahoe, who said in these pages last week that no members of the team they played on begrudged the new Dublin stars their place in the limelight.

“Yes, I don’t think any of my playing colleagues would have any issue with their success or status — any time we chat about the team it’s about how good they are, their excellence, not that we’ve been surpassed.

“They’d all be delighted. I doubt anyone harbours any secret envy of them. I think in Dublin it’s all seen as part of the legacy, a developmental process. That said, I never would have anticipated being this close to five titles in a row. It’s pretty exceptional stuff by any standards, historical or otherwise. An All-Ireland is just so hard to win that it’s hard to see it on the cards, but the team — obviously — is a pretty exceptional one.

“Having said all of that, though, they’ve only had marginal wins in a number of those All-Ireland finals, it’s been very tight. But they have won them, and I don’t know if there are any of those finals that they didn’t deserve to win when you examine them closely.“

O’Neill’s particularly pleased that his old charges are so deeply involved:

I’m very happy that a lot of the 1995 team are involved at various levels with Dublin sides, including the senior team —when Jim Gavin and his cohorts step down a few of them would probably be considered heirs apparent as senior manager. That’s very encouraging.

Gavin was a hard-working wing-forward on O’Neill’s 1995 side. Did he have the cut of a potential manager even then? “Yes — he was of that calibre, both intellectually and as a team player.

“The latter is very important — you can see his team functions very much as a team and not as a collection of elite individuals.

"That’s something you can get with a team, but Jim’s team works very much as a team, they play that way. In fairness, Pat Gilroy was another of that ilk, along with Jim. I’m amazed that Jim has had the energy and enthusiasm to stick with it for so long, because he has a busy career but then winning helps with energy and enthusiasm.”

And the replay? “I think Kerry can take fair confidence from the exposure and experience their team has gathered, particularly as it’s so young, though I think Dublin will get their match-ups better aligned today.

“There were Dublin performances which weren’t at the expected level the last day, and it’s a team with a lot of miles on the clock.

"But I’d expect another good game, which will be good for Gaelic football, which has been in the doldrums to some extent.

"The good games have come in the latter stages of the championship, and the last day we saw a very good game. I’m hoping for the same this evening.”

The big picture and the small picture. Together.

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