Some can be cheesy and many are overused, but if you can associate one with a genuine connection to the mindset of a particular management and playing squad, then they can prove to be a powerful tool in helping strengthen a team’s resolve and mental ability during performances.
After last week’s Connacht SFC final triumph, TV cameras had access to the dressing room of victors Roscommon in what was a rare opportunity to catch those few minutes of elation and joy between teammates.
It was wonderful to see, but it also allowed a slight glimpse into the psyche that Kevin McStay is trying to implement in his squad. One sole sign high on the dressing room wall read: ‘Honesty of effort, absence of ego.’
Short and sweet, Roscommon showed those two traits last weekend in stunning fashion.
The result may have come as a surprise to many, but every man who got off the Roscommon team bus in Salthill was physically and mentally ready to deliver a performance, which was a testament to the coaching and man-management skills of McStay and those around him.
When I consider this Dublin squad and the success they have shared over recent seasons, there has always been one quote that sticks in my head: ‘It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’
Yes, this Dublin team is littered with star names: Brogan, Connolly, Flynn and Cluxton, with the next generation of McCaffrey, Kilkenny and Fenton equally as recognisable and important.
While certain players may get extra plaudits or win individual awards, there hasn’t been a player who has lost sight of his standing and got too big for his boots. This comes from the top down; manager Jim Gavin goes to great lengths to deflect any focus or praise that may be placed directly at his door for the success of his team. He always puts the team first and it is something that is also clearly expected of his players.
While the players mentioned above are the names that first spring to mind when talking about the All-Ireland champions, there are others who do not get the same light shone on their contribution from outside the group, yet will play an equally important role this weekend and, indeed, as the season progresses.
Michael Fitzsimons would be top of that list. While he bucks the trend a little as an individual award winner — he was man-of-the-match in the All-Ireland final replay last year — he is a much under-rated member of this Dublin set up.
I was part of the Dublin squad when Mick broke through in 2010. Pat Gilroy and Mickey Whelan identified what I would argue has been the key asset for Mick since the day he arrived: He was a corner-back who was happy to play corner-back!
That might sound strange, but playing in the full-back line and really wanting to play in the full-back line are very different things.
There are players all over the country who are doing a job in the full-back line, but they would be further out the field in a heartbeat if given the chance. Being in that last line of defence willingly takes a certain attitude.
In 2009, when we lost to Kerry, Denis Bastick played full-back and Paddy Andrews (yes, Paddy, and not his older brother Peadar) played corner-back. Things didn’t go too well that day, all over the pitch, not just the full-back line, but it was clear from then on we needed to identify specialist defenders who were natural backs.
In 2011, when we won the All-Ireland, Mick was regularly tasked with marking the
opposition teams’ best players. While he has been in and out of the team a bit more under Jim — he didn’t start the drawn All-
Ireland final last year — he has always been ready if required, as he proved when handed a start in the replay.
He has played both championship games this year and has impressed hugely, while Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper have missed time through injury.
He is a player that is very aware of his strengths, but as importantly what his limitations may be. He is not as natural on the ball as McMahon or Cooper, but he makes good decisions when in possession and is content to keep it simple.
He has a clear understanding of his role in the team and is happy to put his shoulder to the wheel.
Kildare arrive into Croke Park having scored 3-37 in their opening games against Laois and Meath. Their full-forwards have contributed over 50% of those scores, with Daniel Flynn leading the way on 2-7. I expect Fitzsimons to be given the task of tracking Flynn and reducing the impact of Kildare’s main threat.
Another defender who fits into a similar category is Darren Daly, who has also been part of the Dublin squad since Pat Gilroy’s days. In the 2011 league final defeat against Cork, he was brought on, only to be substituted again shortly afterwards.
For many young players that would have been the end of their inter-county career, but Darren showed the resilience and humility required to go away and work on his game to bring it up to the level required in the top tier.
He has been the definition of a squad player; he has never nailed down a regular starting slot, but Gavin is comfortable trusting him at critical times. Last year’s All-Ireland replay offers the perfect example: The game was in the balance as Dublin held a one-point lead deep in injury time and Mayo were looking to launch a final attack, when Darren closed down Tom Parsons and secured victory with a diving block.
While Darren started three weeks ago against Westmeath, the amount of game time he sees tomorrow will likely depend on the fitness of Philly McMahon.
A third player who is in the early stages of establishing himself as a key squad player is Shane Carthy. Shane is in only his second year with the group and he has had, arguably, the most remarkable journey to be an inter-county footballer of anyone in the country.
Shane is a clubmate of mine in St Vincent’s, but played all his juvenile football in New York, having lived there since he was a child. He came home to Dublin for college and, along with his cousins and family members, joined our senior football set up.
When he arrived, there was no doubt he had all the physical tools to be an elite footballer but his skillset, and in particular his decision
making, were very raw.
Shane immediately set out to improve and would spend hours on the pitch working on his kicking. When he arrived he was nearly exclusively right-footed, but he is now close on equal off both sides (indeed, when he came on against Westmeath last day out, he kicked both points with his left foot).
Shane has a willingness to seek advice and ask questions of coaches and teammates in an effort to accelerate his own improvement. He is close to being obsessive about football, which is a large reason why he now features regularly for Dublin. While mainly used as a wing-forward with Vincent’s, he could feature anywhere around the middle third this summer.
With Michael Darragh Macauley and Paul Flynn yet to return from injuries and Diarmuid Connolly suspended, Shane will likely continue to see increased playing time as the rounds progress.
When Cian O’Neill and Kildare draw up their game plan for tomorrow, they will attempt to expose any chinks in the Dublin armour and system. They may think the obvious targets should be a Fitzsimons or Daly rather than a Cooper or O’Sullivan but the reality is that they will need to be creative and look to bring multiple Dublin players outside of their comfort zones.
The assumption might be to think it’s easier to get these lesser lights to where you want them but these guys have proven time and again they are willing to sacrifice for their team and do the spade work that often allows others the freedom to perform.
Putting the team first, it’s what has got them here and it is what will keep them where they are.