DICK CLERKIN: Closing the deal

Sunday’s All-Ireland final may remain in the balance until the closing moments. And if it does, Dublin have the perfect tag-team of closers.

WITH 20 minutes left in the semi-final replay against Mayo, Dublin were on the ropes, crying out for inspiration. In the 51st minute Alan Brogan entered the fray, Kevin McManamon in the 53rd.

Over the next 20 minutes, between them they had a direct hand in 2-2 out of Dublin’s final 3-4 scored as they proceeded to steamroll over Mayo. Inspiration can present itself in many guises. Alan Brogan provided it in the form of simplicity and assurance. McManamon provided it with his customary explosive eye for goal.

While McManamon’s reputation as an impact sub is renowned at this stage, Alan Brogan’s emergence as a guiding hand from the bench has added another string to Jim Gavin’s already tuneful bow. Watching Alan play this year, I see a few parallels with myself. Knowing that he hasn’t too many days left as an inter-county player, he looks like someone who is just enjoying and appreciating every minute of game-time he gets. Free from the typical baggage and frustration substitutes can often carry at not being in the first 15, he is in the perfect frame of mind coming into the game.

Visibly emotional at the end of their defeat to Donegal last year, many felt he would call time on his illustrious career. However, like myself, he obviously realises this is simply too good a time to be involved with his beloved county and has chosen not to prematurely call it a day when he still has something to offer.

Unperturbed with his unfamiliar substitute role, Alan brings calm to Dublin’s play. More important than what he directly contributes himself on the pitch, players like Alan can elevate the performance levels of those around him. Getting on the ball, retaining possession, making good decisions and bringing others into the game. The more times you do that in a game, especially in the final quarter, the more chance you have of winning the game.

Recognising Alan may not have a full game in him at this level, Jim Gavin has astutely decided that he would rather have Alan on the pitch for the final 20 minutes when the game is won, rather than the first 20, when only shadows are boxed.

Playing as a sub this year, I set myself a target of getting ‘10 touches’ when I came on. In the modern game, in terms of possessions, a good day’s work is when you’re hitting in or around the 30 mark. Hence if you’re on the pitch for 20 minutes or so,10 possessions is a realistic target to hit. There is no point in coming on to hide and not get involved, afraid of making a mistake.

Equally, there is nothing to be gained by frantically running around desperately trying to make an impact. How often do we see subs coming in wanting to be the hero? Trying to put in big hits, going on headless solo runs and taking pot shots at goal. Mistakes I have made myself in the past. When everyone else around you is beginning to tire and the inevitable mistakes start to happen; by keeping it simple and making good decisions on the ball, a substitute can have a profound impact on a team’s performance in the closing stages. Look for the ball, retain possession, make each ball count and be progressive in your play. Watching Alan Brogan for the last 20 minutes against Mayo, I could see that.

Brogan’s pass to Brian Fenton in the lead up to his brother’s game-turning score was a case in point. He was only on the pitch a matter of minutes and wouldn’t have been anywhere close to getting his second wind. With total awareness of what was going on around him, instead of taking on his own score he spotted the run of Fenton. Crucially, he remained composed enough to execute the pass to perfection, maintaining Fenton’s forward momentum, thus creating a goal chance that Bernard dispatched. Contrast that play to the preceding 10 minutes when numerous Dublin passes were poorly executed and intercepted by a defiant Mayo.

McManamon and Brogan are an ideal duo to close out a game. Brogan’s composure and craft perfectly complements McManamon’s explosive dynamism. Their introduction against Mayo had a profound impact on the game. Not only did they have a desired ‘impact’ that you want from any sub, they elevated the performance levels of dynamic players such as Fenton, Michael Dara McCauley and James McCarthy.

Looking ahead to this weekend’s final, the result could very well depend on whose bench can have the biggest impact in the closing stages. Do Kerry have the same impact potential as Dublin? In a potentially frantic finale, the calming influence of Brogan could well prove to be the difference between the teams.

Does Éamonn Fitzmaurice have anyone similar to call on in the closing stages? In Colm Cooper, Kerry have the best playmaker in the game. But can he last the frantic pace that Dublin will set for the full hour, and still have a major influence in the final quarter as Brogan et al enter the fray. Could Eamon Fitzmaurice conceivably recognise this and hold Cooper in reserve, knowing that he still might only be half cooked for a match of this intensity?

Unlikely, but if anyone will make such a call it is Fitzmaurice. Jim Gavin doesn’t have to take a gamble on making such a brave call. His last 20 strategy has ready been road-tested. Alan Brogan’s final minutes on Sunday could well be his last in a Dublin jersey. They could prove to be some of the most decisive minutes played in an illustrious career.

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