RTÉ pundit Colm O’Rourke used to say that the All-Ireland title is won by the team with the best players.
Colm doesn’t say that anymore. The Meath legend has watched enough football over the past few years to realise that his much-loved maxim no longer holds true.
Nowadays, Colm says the best team wins the All-Ireland title. By rewriting one of his core principles, O’Rourke has acknowledged that success is no longer governed by how players perform as individuals.
Instead, the destination of the Sam Maguire Cup is decided by how individuals perform as a team.
Donegal proved that beyond a shadow of doubt.
Yet, as we look ahead towards this year’s All-Ireland Championship, it’s interesting to note that Dublin are the red-hot favourites.
The League champions are rated as 5/2 shots.
After the Dubs, there is a considerable gap to the rest of the field as Kerry (4/1), Donegal (9/2), Cork (6/1), Tyrone (10/1) and Mayo (11/1) head the chasing pack.
Of course, it’s entirely understandable why the Dubs are considered the team to beat. Dublin manager Jim Gavin is holding a full hand of trump cards.
For starters, Dublin have the luxury of playing all their games on home soil. Even before this year’s Championship starts, they’ve already played seven games in Croke Park.
In terms of raw talent, Gavin has an embarrassment of riches. His goalkeeper and captain, Stephen Cluxton, has been the best goalkeeper of his generation. Full-back is the problem position for nearly every team. But not for Dublin as Rory O’Carroll is one of the best in the business.
While O’Carroll is a good midfielder, Michael Darragh Macauley is superb. Against Tyrone, he underlined his phenomenal ball-carrying ability as he repeatedly punctured holes in Tyrone’s wall of white jerseys. When it comes to breaking tackles, no-one does it better than the 6ft 3in Dublin midfielder.
Yet, it’s in attack where Dublin’s real treasure lies. Every year for the past decade, the assertion that “Kerry have the best forwards in the country” has gone unchallenged. But not this year.
There has been a changing of the guard. Dublin have the Brogan brothers, Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McManamon.
No other county can boast such an array of finishers.
All things considered, the Dubs should win this year’s Sam Maguire. They have the strongest squad by a mile.
But as Colm O’Rourke will testify, it’s not all about having the best players. It’s about having the best team, and Dublin’s performance in the League final raised a lot of questions about their claim to that particular title.
The League decider also indicated that Jim Gavin is still finding his feet at inter-county level.
Tyrone’s two highest scorers from play were Connor McAliskey (0-3) and Sean Cavanagh (0-3).
For his match-ups, Gavin put Johnny Cooper, a wing-back, on McAliskey, while Ger Brennan, who is not a man-marker, picked up Cavanagh. Gavin had a raft of more viable options. Cian O’Sullivan, who had an ordinary game at midfield, could have gone to full-back and marked McAliskey while Cooper could have moved to the 40 and kept a tighter rein on Cavanagh.
Apart from losing some key battles due to not picking the correct team, the failings of Dublin’s defensive system were all too obvious.
Despite winning 60% of the possession, Dublin conceded 0-17 to a Tyrone side that was missing Stephen O’Neill. And if Gavin persists with his current gameplan, Dublin will continue to ship big scores. Unlike other counties who always keep a flotilla of bodies permanently harboured in their defence, Dublin’s half-backs and half-forwards attack en masse.
They regularly commit 12-men to an attack. This is a highly risky strategy as it leaves their fullback line totally isolated.
For starters, the strategy meant that Croke Park once again became Sean Cavanagh’s playground. After 2008, the year Cavanagh was crowned Footballer of the Year, most teams learned to clog the central channel as this prevented the Tyrone man from running at them. But Dublin’s system granted Cavanagh room to manoeuvre and he punished them for it.
By pushing so many defenders into their attack, Dublin leave themselves open to rapid counter-attacks.
When the Tyrone defence broke up a move in the 43rd minute, the entire Dublin half-back line had charged up the pitch to support their forwards.
Tyrone’s counter-attack covered the length of Croke Park and it only required two fist-passes. After collecting the ball for Joe McMahon, Matthew Donnelly raced up the field and delivered a fist pass to Connor McAliskey. Once McAliskey turned his man, he was able to run into an acre of grass and score from 13 metres. Tyrone don’t get those type of scores against Donegal.
Dublin’s attacking play also failed to impress. The hallmark of all great teams is that they create a plan which reaps the maximum return from their star forward.
Evidently, Dublin haven’t concocted such a blueprint for their best finisher, Bernard Brogan.
When confronted with Tyrone’s defensive system, Dublin’s forwards played as individuals.
Because he has such a glut of talented footballers, Jim Gavin was able to bring on high calibre subs such as Philly McMahon (0-1), Dean Rock (0-2) and Kevin McManamon.
In the end, Dublin just out-gunned Tyrone.
While Dublin have a serious wealth of talent, it would be wrong not to acknowledge their other attributes.
Unlike other Dublin teams, they have a serious work ethic. The forwards tackle with intent and, when their defenders are caught up the field, they bust their lungs to get back.
Ultimately, Dublin beat Tyrone because of their fitness, their honesty of effort and their incredible strength-in-depth.
But Cork have also exhibited the same traits.
For the past two years, Cork were the favourites to win the All-Ireland but failure to function as a team has repeatedly undermined the considerable talent in that squad.
It will be extremely interesting to monitor Dublin’s progress.
Who knows? Maybe their bold gameplan will work.
After all, the winning score in the National League final was kicked by wing-back Jack McCaffery, who received the ball from his fellow wing-back, James McCarthy.
Perhaps fortune will favour the brave.
But it’s questionable.
A style of play branded ‘adventurous’ in the League can just as easily be classified as ‘downright foolish’ in the Championship.
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