Life as an inter-county defender, even one stationed in the relatively controlled environs of Dublin’s back line, brings with it the inevitability that you will be burned. The trick is doing all you can to limit your exposure to the fire.
Jonny Cooper knows this.
Glimpses inside Dublin’s dressing room, and the minds of those within, have been rare in recent times but Cooper’s nerdish attention to detail, on both a micro and a macro level, has managed to slip out despite the lockdown.
He loves the intricate nature of what he does. The analysis on the minutiae. Cooper will stick the video on slow-mo to study every tackle in detail. Nothing goes unnoticed. It may be a fingertip here or a foot there. The margins, after all, are painfully small at this level.
“We beat Donegal in 2010 in an All-Ireland U21 final and Michael Murphy hit the crossbar,” he explained ahead of today’s All-Ireland final. Dublin, by the by, won that decider by two points and Murphy’s spot-kick was missed in stoppage time.
“I always think of that.
It’s only a couple of inches that potentially separates you from winning and losing and those couple of inches could be broken down into eye or hand position or something like that. I’d say other lads do look at it but I’m probably a bit weird, maybe a bit of OCD, in looking at some of it.
Cooper’s reputation for studiousness extends to his knowledge of the wider game-plan. The whispers are that Jim Gavin’s squad is well versed in anything up to five or six different gameplans and that few of them can recite their lines better than a man who paints a picture of an organic approach to tactics rather than one dictated by dogma.
Among the rearguard, in any case.
“In-season there is a lot of internal conversation, bouncing stuff off Fitzy (Michael Fitzsimons) or Philly (McMahon) or Murch (Eoin Murchan) or one of the boys back there and seeing how they would do it and trying to marry it,” Cooper said. “There isn’t a whole pile of formal stuff in front of the group.
“It’s more informal, WhatsApps or phone calls, before or after training. Those collaborative thoughts can come together, maybe twig a marking technique against somebody that may be coming up. Don’t know if the forwards have them. It may be different for them because they’re not marking someone.”
Gavin has spoken ad nauseam about player-ownership and 20 minutes with Cooper gives weight to that. By his reckoning, the strategic stuff is a joint-operation between the men on either side of the touchline. Changes of pace or direction, he added, are not ordained from up high.
It’s not coming from the line: ‘play this way now, folks’. It’s probably more fluid.
Dublin are hardly alone in that.
The reigning champions may be in the vanguard now as football continues to evolve but their opponents were revolutionaries in the noughties when numbers ceased to have any bearing on positions and teams played in packs.
That theory remains intrinsic to the game today. Ask Peter Harte to describe his role in this Tyrone team and he will describe himself as a ‘middle eight player’. And his uncle doesn’t exactly go along with the view that Dublin are doing anything very different to the rest.
Mickey Harte has railed regularly against the black and white portraits of Dublin as attacking cavaliers and ~ Tyrone as dour roundheads — Niall Sludden made a similar point in recent weeks — and points to the Leinster side’s traumatic 2014 loss to Donegal by way of explanation.
“From that day on you saw a different Dublin,” said the Tyrone manager. “Not that it has always been noted, but they became more defensive and very much aware of the need to be defensive and they do it with great skill.
“Up to that time, they did play totally on the front-foot. They just took on all-comers and said, ‘We’ll beat ye. I don’t care what you’re about, we’ll beat ye’. Donegal cracked that myth on them, and they learned a lot from that myth.
Ever since that time, they have that quality to go and kill you with scores. They also are very, very secure at the back and they have a great system of defending and it is very ordered.
Team sports tend to lend themselves to simplistic narratives but the reality is more complicated and interesting for it. Carlow and Waterford, for instance, have both been tagged as defensive outfits yet they played some superb attacking football in accounting for Kildare and Wexford respectively this summer.
Tyrone wear similar shades of grey.
Joe Brolly and Anthony Moyles became entangled in a Twitter spat after they defeated Monaghan in the All-Ireland semi-final but both agreed, in a roundabout way, that Harte’s side had basically abandoned their zonal defensive system in favour of man-to-man.
When that actually happened was the bone of contention but there is no doubt that they have moved on from the side that invited Dublin on to them with such disastrous consequences during last summer’s semi-final.
Harte probably wouldn’t see that as such a big deal.
“You have to have different ways of playing,” he said at Tyrone’s press day late last month.
If you lose a game, people accuse you of having ‘No Plan B’ is the famous line. There might be a Plan A and a Plan B and a Plan C, but people mightn’t recognise them as such.
“I don’t think anybody in the modern game will be a slave to one way of playing. They will play a certain way when they have possession and a certain way when they don’t have it. And they might have to vary within the context of both those things. So, it isn’t a fixed situation where you’re all prescribed and it’s like moving draught buttons about on a board.
“It can’t be like that. There has to be a degree of that, with a system of play, but there has to be flexibility and let people use their own initiative, their anticipatory skills, to change the script. It’s a very fluid situation, but you have to have a basic script or plan that you would like to apply.”
There has been no shortage of suggestions as to how Tyrone should set up this afternoon. The common denominator, regardless of affiliation, age or experience, seems to be that they must plant a flag by pushing up and contesting Dublin’s kick-outs.
Alan Brogan, Owen Mulligan, and Conor McManus have all made persuasive cases for such a pressing game but the Monaghan forward also warned of the inherent danger in allowing the opposition to dominate thoughts as plans are set in train.
“If Tyrone get caught up too much on trying to stop Dublin and forget to play their own game ... ultimately they want to go and win the All-Ireland. So, they’ll have their plans, but they’ll have their own gameplan too. They’ll want to put Dublin on the back-foot and make them mark them.”
Let the mind games begin.