Cast your mind back three weeks and the first half of the Kerry-Dublin semi-final. Colm Cooper leisurely carved open a distressed Dublin defence as if sprinkled with pixie dust from Tinkerbell herself. His assigned marker was Ger Brennan. It is not unfair to say that his exploitation could have, maybe should have been foreshortened. Why did his wing men leave him so exposed? Where was his defensive midfielder, Cian O’Sullivan?
Ger won’t be marking a natural ball player such as Colm Cooper in tomorrow’s All-Ireland final. In fact he may well be marking no-one if Keith Higgins forages deep or supports his defence against the marauding Dublin attack. This will be perfect, a sweeping role covering, supporting, and attacking without responsibility. I bet he dreams of this. Warning! Dreams don’t always come true.
To this end, is Cian O’Sullivan the better choice for centre-half back? Although a superb athlete who has demonstrated applaudable flexibility and perseverance, Cian has been programmed to play a specific role all year and All-Ireland final day is not the time to experiment with the most important position on the field. Maybe Rory O’Carroll is the best option at No. 6, allowing Philip McMahon to go corner back? Back in the real world, Jim Gavin has illustrated significant faith in Ger Brennan, just as Bryan Cullen before him under Pat Gilroy. Faith and trust are wonderful things, but sometimes they let you down.
This is an interesting question. On every street corner stands a man with an opinion on what the best Dublin and Mayo teams are. Is it reasonable to second guess Jim Gavin and James Horan? Think for a moment about the hours you spent in the back yard with your own son or daughter teaching them how to execute the basics: picking the ball up, toe-to-hand, left foot then right foot. You know their every move but most importantly you know the small detail where they may improve — they’re leaning back, losing balance while kicking from a standing position, or maybe using the wrong hand to place the ball on their foot. Now consider the hours that Jim Gavin and James Horan have watched their players hone their skill and adapt to the style of play we’ve become accustomed to. Why would we doubt that they know best? Neither Dean Rock nor Kevin McManamon are good enough to start for Dublin, for who would they replace? Paddy Andrews? This would destabilise the balance in the Dublin forward unit. Who would be the decoy man then? Should Denis Bastick start in midfield and relocate Cian O’Sullivan? Does anyone actually think he will last 70 minutes, considering his game time to date?
Mayo make no changes from the semi-final line up. Only Alan Freeman of the starting six forwards from the team that played against Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final keeps his position and number 14 jersey, and only three of those six (add in Kevin McLoughlin and Alan Dillon) actually start tomorrow. What has Richie Feeney done that has been so wrong? Can a defender (Keith Higgins) be an effective centre- half forward? Are Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor fit enough to start? Ironically, despite Dublin having the better bench, it is Mayo who have the most searching questions about what is the best team to start. Have they learned the harsh lessons from the 2012 Donegal final?
“Should he stay or should he go” was almost a song for The Clash. An injury-free Cillian O’Connor swings this game strongly in favour of Mayo should he stay. An absent Cillian O’Connor has the reverse effect. Is Cillian O’Connor fit to play? Only his physiotherapist truly knows the level of risk involved. Cillian will start and he will be indifferent to the pain, the potential for repeat dislocation and the effect his initial presence and probable substitution will have on the team. Is he starting because the players need him mentally?
To maximise his presence, I would play Cillian at No. 11, leaving a two-man full-forward line. From there, he will be able to exploit the space afforded to him by Ger Brennan, avoid winning primary possession, dictate the pace of the game and importantly use his ability to spray accurate passing into the inside-forwards. He must stay on the field at least until the initial Dublin burst is quenched. Allowing Mayo to regroup and stay in contention through frees and smart creative play. Once Mayo settle into their stride, the effect on the Mayo team from the loss of O’Connor diminishes as Dublin seem to give opposition ample time and opportunity to stay in touch.
The adage is that players win matches, managers lose them. Speaking as someone who has never met the man, Jim Gavin appears entirely logical, a deep, tactical and thoughtful man. He is clearly loyal to his players and awards loyalty in return. A point which is clearly obvious in his team selection. His belief in himself and his system of play is admirable. However will this be his downfall? My friend, and now ex-Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney once quoted me statistics illustrating a greater than 90% conversion rate for Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs. Against Meath (Leinster final) and Kerry (All-Ireland semi-final) this was more akin to 40% at best. What solution will Jim devise for Sunday? What system will Dublin play? Will it be the energy-intensive all-out attacking option illustrated by Jack McCaffrey, MD MacAuley and Cian O’Sullivan driving at the heart of the Mayo rearguard? Or will it be the more thoughtful passing and moving game best demonstrated during the latter half of the Kerry classic? Which once will work best and when should it be deployed?
Finally Jim Gavin will need to get more from Ciaran Kilkenny. His best play is when he is involved in every attack distributing possession and linking play. His worst is when he is sacrificed to create space in the centre of the opposition defence. He is young and needs clear easy understood instructions.
James Horan on the other hand is cool and calculating. Strikes me as a man who is happy to mould his team to play the opposition he encounters. His loyalty is to the outcome and will do what is necessary to achieve this. Of course he is loyal to players but will sacrifice any one man at a whimper, for this I reference Richie Feeney.
His traits therefore suggest that he will not favour a shoot-out against the Dubs. He is correct in this analysis. Instead he may favour a tactical strategy, potentially deploying Keith Higgins in a third-man midfielder type role negating the probable aggressive attacking opening burst from Dublin.
Along with Aidan and Seamus O’Shea, he will form a strong initially-high defensive barrier 60 yards from the Mayo goal and use this as a platform for dispossession and counter-attacking football. He may play a two-man inside line and force Dublin to decide if a sweeper is necessary. Mayo will be happy to draw frees and score from distance negating the sweeper.
Managers certainly have a role on match day and just because they cannot play the game doesn’t mean their influence is tapered. This game may be indeed be won or lost on the line.
The 2013 league semi-final saw Dublin take a 2-9 to 0-5, 10-point lead after 16 minutes. The final two-goal winning margin was testament to a much superior Dublin performance though my lasting impression was that Mayo won the midfield battle. Can this be true? Pressuring the Dublin kick-out will force Cluxton to deliver the long ball and provide an opportunity for high fielding and a platform for Mayo to win primary possession. However in the modern game Dublin can win with minority midfield possession. The display of MacAuley and O’Sullivan against Kerry may have matched that by the O’Sheas against Donegal, not from high fielding and tackling but from work rate, attacking play and application. Kingdom fans will remember the last desperate lunge from MacAuley to win the break ball which led to McManamon’s goal. If only the three Kerry players he beat to it had the same willpower?
Midfield remains a vital sector and this game pits the only four serious contenders for All Stars, in this position, against each other. Their styles may differ but their passion is matched. Mayo need the majority possession to service their less efficient forward unit.