They tell us that 91% of Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs were secured by a man in a Dublin jersey this year. So why do we still obsess about the 9% that weren’t?
It’s simple really. Beating Dublin is all about the amount of damage you inflict when you manage to disrupt their possession game. Dublin know this too and that is why they have gone short with so many kick-outs over the last few years.
When Tyrone’s Pascal McConnell started the recent fixation with retaining possession from kick-outs in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter final against Dublin, we thought that it was a passing trend, but, as usual, Mickey Harte was ahead of the curve. It wasn’t Tyrone’s short kick-outs that cost them that game but the 17 wides they kicked at the other end. Maybe the energy expended in trying to bring the ball 130 yards upfield had something to do with their waywardness but the short kick-out has evolved since then.
Different teams have had different levels of success in imitating the tactic, but no team has quite managed to bring it to Dublin’s level.
And it’s not just Stephen Cluxton that makes Dublin’s kick-outs work. They work because so many Dublin players have the energy to make so many runs in that six-second period when Cluxton chooses and finds his target. Following that the receiving player is accomplished enough to ride the first tackle if needs be and usually has the composure to set up a proper attacking platform.
There was so much involved in what Kerry did in that bizarre quarter of an hour before half-time in the semi-final (in which they took Dublin for 2-4), that it would be naive for Mayo to expect that they can repeat the trick.
First off, the moments chosen to press up on the Dublin kick-out must come after a free kick, a 45, or a delay caused by injury or substitution. Don’t forget either that Kerry, despite protestations to the contrary, would have spent months working specifically on the Dublin kick-out knowing that their paths were always likely to cross. Mayo, for all their familiarity with Dublin, couldn’t make those assumptions.
Secondly, the risk in committing two banks of six players to press up on the Dublin kick-out is so great that not every team would be willing to give it a try. I imagine that an awful amount of goals were conceded at the other end in Kerry’s A v B training games before the experiment was ready to bear fruit.
Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially in the context of tomorrow’s All-Ireland final, if Mayo are to get any joy from Dublin restarts, they can’t depend on Cluxton showing the same hubris as he did against Kerry.
Dublin are normally very good at recovering from errors, but because Cluxton has been so good for so long, having made his first mistake he tried a difficult kick-out towards James McCarthy on the Cusack Stand sideline. With two players converging and a third ready to pounce, it was never on, and it is unlikely that you’ll see the same from Cluxton tomorrow.
Even the great players make mistakes but it is what they do next that sets them apart.
The longer kick-outs, taken either side of Paul Geaney’s goal might, however, inform Mayo’s approach. These were the type of kicks that killed Mayo when they last faced Dublin in the final three years ago. The kick-out before the Geaney goal, aimed at Paul Flynn, was caught by a reversing David Moran, who offloaded to Donnchadh Walsh, before Anthony Maher’s attempt was pounced on by Geaney.
Because there was a considerable delay in getting play restarted, Kerry were set up again for the next kick-out. This time Walsh was able to reverse into the same pocket of space under the Cusack Stand that Cluxton was aiming for, gather possession and set up another attack. The result was scoreable free and a yellow card for John Small after an off-the-ball check on Darran O’Sullivan.
Mayo learned the hard way, both last year and three years ago, that you can’t go hard after Dublin kick-outs all the time, but Kerry managed enough to give them encouragement.
In that brief period of dominance, Kerry also reminded us that rewards can be greatest when the game is played without fear.
Nothing Mayo have done this summer tells us that they are capable of stopping Dublin. And yet, viewing their chances through the prism of Dublin’s semi-final against Kerry, there is an awful lot that Mayo can do better than Kerry did.
Physically, athletically and even in age profile, Mayo are better equipped to go down the stretch with the Dubs. Their assigned sweeper, Kevin McLoughlin, while having a different brief to Aidan O’Mahony, offers more in terms of firefighting and moving the ball quicker from defence to attack.
Lee Keegan might well concede three points to Diarmuid Connolly but he will surely breach the Dublin backline more often and more aggressively that Peter Crowley did. Colm Boyle and Patrick Durcan don’t need a second invitation to attack either, especially when they know that McLoughlin has the legs to cover for them. Séamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons might not have David Moran’s and Anthony Maher’s precision or game intelligence, but they too won’t be as passive when a half gap appears every now and then. They also tend to support more in off-the-shoulder moves than the Kerry duo.
On the face of it, you could suggest that Kerry had more firepower last month than Mayo will have tomorrow. But the truth is that when Darran O’Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy came off injured and Donnchadh Walsh was replaced earlier than usual, Kerry played out the final 24 minutes of the game with a very unusual half-forward line of Stephen O’Brien, James O’Donoghue and Barry John Keane. All three are extremely talented forwards, but none of them would be that well versed in holding their shape across the 40, or in how to supply the bullets for Paul Geaney inside.
Kerry only scored one point in the final 15 minutes against Dublin, not just because they lost their composure while Dublin retained theirs, but also because they lost their shape in the half-forward line and with it any threat in the full-forward line.
Mayo are unlikely to be as shapeless. Andy Moran, with his willingness to make sacrificing runs, fulfilled the role of target man in the Tyrone and Tipperary games, but, having seen Kerry’s struggle in the endgame and noted Jonny Cooper’s excellent form, Stephen Rochford might feel that Moran could be worth more to the team coming off the bench when the game is in the melting pot and a strong full-forward presence is essential. It has been suggested since Rory O’Carroll’s departure that the Dublin full-back line could struggle under a sporadic and well planned aerial bombardment, but we only got to see glimpses of that supposed vulnerability three weeks ago as Kieran Donaghy was used as a decoy to draw Cian O’Sullivan out around the ‘D’ and away from Colm Cooper and Paul Geaney.
If Barry Moran is to have a role tomorrow, it could well be further upfield than before. That Kerry didn’t try a three-man full-forward line from the start suggests that they never anticipated unimpeded access to airspace anyway. But in hindsight they might acknowledge that in order to beat Dublin, you simply have to commit men forward.
The recent history between Mayo and Dublin shows that Dublin invariably win, and with a record of 27 successive games undefeated, they do indeed appear as close to unbeatable as any Dublin team.
But let’s focus on the day last year when Dublin didn’t beat Mayo. By exposing Dublin’s indiscipline in the drawn semi-final in 2015, Mayo may well have added the final ingredient that saw Dublin become the team they are in 2016. The Dubs haven’t been as ragged since that day, and, with only 75 frees conceded all season, they are running at half Mayo’s concession rate (149 frees).
With Dean Rock in the form of his life, those figures are worrying.
The challenge and the paradox, therefore, for Mayo is to bring a form of chaotic madness to the game and still retain their discipline. That mindset was to the fore in last year’s drawn semi final when eight minutes from time they found themselves seven points down with only one starting forward having scored from play. It was a game they shouldn’t have drawn but did.
But after the replay they could have won and didn’t, they were left yet again with nothing to show for all their gallantry.
All the evidence suggests that Mayo can’t win tomorrow but the thought of ending up with nothing again should drive them to a level of desperation and ferocity that even Dublin can’t match.
But can they win? Why not?
As Bob Dylan sang, “when you ain’t got nothin’ you got nothin’ to lose”.
That’s what makes them dangerous tomorrow.
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