The Darby factor: The power of the bench

Finisher. That’s the term managers prefer to use these days when selling and telling a player that they’re not starting the next day but should see action at some point.

The Darby factor: The power of the bench

Offaly’s Seamus Darby, far left, celebrates his last-minute goal that denied Kerry the five-in-a-row. Picture: Colman Doyle
Offaly’s Seamus Darby, far left, celebrates his last-minute goal that denied Kerry the five-in-a-row. Picture: Colman Doyle

Finisher. That’s the term managers prefer to use these days when selling and telling a player that they’re not starting the next day but should see action at some point.

It’s not just because it sounds better than ‘sub’, even if you’re of the impact variety. Just as there’s no longer reason to feel embarrassed or outraged that you were substituted at some stage after half-time as John Egan was in 1984, being left off the starting line-up isn’t reason to sulk or be ashamed either.

Things may have been different back in the ’70s and ’80s when, as Kieran Donaghy put it on his Shotclock slot on Off the Ball AM yesterday morning, “subs were these guys who just went up and togged out and sat there and weren’t really part of it and you’d only be brought on if someone was decapitated”.

But now you’re much more than a last resort. You’re there to change — win — the game, the All-Ireland.

You only need look at this past decade, the decade of the Dubs.

In that time, Dublin have played in 17 All-Ireland semi-finals or finals, losing only three — the 2010, 2012, and 2014 semi-finals. In all three defeats the Dublin bench failed to outscore their opposing bench and in two of them the Dubs were outscored after half-time.

In 2010 Colm O’Neill came off the bench to wildly swing the game in Cork’s favour, winning a penalty and notching a crucial point, while Derek Kavanagh would kick an injury-time point; at the time Kevin McManamon and the Dublin bench in general was still short of being what he and it would become.

In the 2012 semi-final against Mayo, Dublin would launch a ferocious if ultimately futile comeback in the last 20 minutes but tellingly no bench player of theirs actually scored — the first and last time this decade the Dubs bench would draw such a blank. In contrast, both Richie Feeney and Seamus O’Shea came on to kick vital points for Mayo.

And then when Donegal likewise ambushed and dethroned them in 2014, Paddy McBrearty kicked as many points off the bench as the Dublin cavalry combined.

But those three games were the exception. The rest, Dublin either won or drew, and the bench that Pat Gilroy and Jim Gavin were able to unleash has been a major reason why.

Of those 14 semi-finals or finals that Dublin have either drawn or lost, Dublin in all but five of them either trailed at half-time or their starting 15 failed to outscore the opposition’s starting 15.

In the 2011, 2013, and 2017 finals they were behind by a point at half-time. In the 2013 semi-final to Kerry they were behind by two at the interval. In the 2016 semi-final to the same opposition, the gap at the break was five.

In both the drawn and replayed 2016 All-Ireland finals, as well as the 2011 and 2017 deciders and the 2015 drawn semi-final, Mayo’s starting 15 outscored Dublin’s.

And yet on every single one of those occasions, the Dubs survived and usually prevailed, thanks to the impact of their subs.

In fact the 2015 final is the only time that both Dublin’s second-half and bench tally was less than either Kerry’s or Mayo’s this decade — and even that day Alan Brogan’s massive solo run and point stood out more than Darran O’Sullivan’s neat two points off the bench.

So have no doubt about it — the scoring power of the bench will likely determine this season’s All-Ireland title. Last year was about the only year Dublin didn’t need any real intervention from their bench, their starters outscoring Galway and Tyrone by a combined 12 points in August and September — and even then their bench flexed their muscles, outscoring Galway by 0-6 to 0-2 and then Tyrone by 0-2 to 0-0 from play. But this year they’re likely to face a Mayo and/or a Kerry at some stage and the tale of this decade is that it will come down to the bench.

And history also tells us that any drive for five can hinge on the impact from the bench. Not every sub in the ’80s came along just to sit in the dugout, as the aforementioned John Egan could sadly testify. He was Kerry captain in ’82, the same year and day that a certain Seamus Darby kicked the most immortal score in the history of the GAA.

So with the bench likely to trip up or seal the latest five-in-a-row bid, who could be Darby 2.0? Here’s five likely candidates.

JAMES O’DONOGHUE

Things haven’t gone or flowed so well for O’Donoghue since he won his All-Ireland and Player of the Year in 2014, and with Paul Geaney and David Clifford having each won an All Star the past couple of years, he’s hardly likely to break into the starting Kerry inside line in 2019.

But he could be just the kind of player to come on and provide instant offence for Kerry, all the more so since Barry John Keane’s explosiveness of the bench was deemed unnecessary by Peter Keane.

In the 2016 semi-final O’Donoghue came back from injury and off the bench to kick a big score against Dublin, one of only three times the past five summers that Jim Gavin’s bench were outscored by the opposition’s in an All Ireland semi-final or final.

In all though, the Kerry bench has been outscored 3-4 to 0-7 by Dublin’s over the four championship clashes between the counties this decade.

And in the three championship clashes between the counties on Gavin’s beat, Dublin have won the second half by a total of 2-26 to 0-17 whereas Kerry slightly had the edge in first halves.

They need their own McManamon. Which might, in a beautiful twist in history, lead to them having their very own Darby to foil another five in a row.

ANDY MORAN

The penny seems to finally have dropped in Mayo, and about time too. The bench wins national finals and titles.

Last month in the league final they had too much for Kerry, when holding back and then unleashing the likes of four-time All Star Colm Boyle and goal hero Ciaran Treacy, but perhaps the biggest impact of all was in the form of the man who provided the assist for Treacy’s goal, the indefatigable Andy Moran.

If you look through the history of Mayo-Dublin clashes during the Gavin era, Mayo have never beaten Dublin, in league or championship.

And yet in all but one of the six championship collisions between the counties in that time, the Mayo starting 15 has outscored Dublin’s.

The difference has been the respective benches. In Gavin’s time, Dublin’s bench has outscored Mayo’s by double scores in their head-to-head clashes, 2-13 to 1-6.

In fact in their four All-Ireland final clashes, Mayo have had only one solitary point from a substitute, Alan Dillon in the 2016 drawn game, whereas the Dublin bench has contributed a minimum of 0-2 in those games, to go with the goals Kevin McManamon scored in both 2015 semi-final games.

Moran off the bench may just be the answer for Mayo.

In both those 2015 semi-finals he was held in reserve, then unleashed to inspire Mayo’s sterling comeback the first day, kicking the equalising point that forced a replay, and kicking another score as well as setting up a goal for Cillian O’Connor the following day out.

This paper has advocated in previous seasons how he could be deployed much like Peter Canavan was by Tyrone in the 2003 and 2005 All-Ireland triumphs but not even Moran is seeking to be a starter now.

But he could just be the finisher of finishers, dashing a five-in-a-row and creating a special kind of history and magic for his own county to crown a wonderful career.

KYLE CONEY

Just like Darby was in the wilderness for a few years before

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A standout underage player, his senior career failed to blossom as we had all anticipated but now, at 28, he has a maturity that has prompted Harte to give him another shot.

With Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane working so well as a tandem inside, Coney may be held in reserve, but in Tyrone’s last game of the league, he came off the bench to goal against Galway.

Could be a trend that repeats itself this summer, even in September.

KEVIN McMANAMON

It might just take a Darby to pull off the five-in-a-row as easily as it would to foil it.

And there’d be something fitting about Dublin’s drive for immortality and their decade in general being bookended by the man whose goal in 2011 against Kerry set in motion this remarkable period of success.

That goal of course was far from his last telling contribution from the bench. Indeed, it wasn’t even his first: His introduction against Donegal the previous month turned that semi-final, offsetting Diarmuid Connolly’s sending off.

He’s particularly tormented Dublin’s two most constant threats: Mayo and Kerry. And he may just do so again. The ultimate Finisher in the Jim Gavin and Joe Schmidt sense of the term.

BERNARD BROGAN

He hasn’t gone away, you know.

While his close friend Paul Flynn decided it was time to call it quits after a frustrating period with injury and little game time, Brogan has stayed on.

He’s clearly no longer a starter and he was barely used as a sub by Gavin in this year’s league, his only bit of playing time coming in the closing minutes of the dead rubber affair up in Breffni Park.

But there’s a reason Gavin still has him around.

Brogan’s shown he can provide instant offence off the bench, just like he did kicking five points in just 45 minutes upon Dean Rock being black-carded in the 2017 Leinster final.

And he’d come on in that year’s All-Ireland final too, being involved in two of Dublin’s last three scores.

All that was before his cruciate injury but he still showed flashes in the Dublin county championship last month that his class is permanent.

And it’s easy to picture any roar from Andy Moran being unleashed from the Mayo bench being drowned out by the Hill saluting the introduction of Brogan.

Brogan will go down as the best forward — or at least finisher in the traditional meaning of the term — of the decade.

And there’d be something poetic about it if the best finisher of that decade finishes it with a goal in front of his beloved Hill and a Hill that has loved him.

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