Some mantras we accept blindly.
You need a certain amount of marquee forwards to win an All-Ireland.
You’ll never achieve anything in the modern game by going man to man.
It’s the team with the strongest bench that will be claiming Sam on the Hogan Stand steps come September.
Sports analysis is littered with these maxims. All of them contain a large dollop of truth, but there are exceptions to every rule and that last one about the strength of the second wave highlights just why such knee-jerk statements need closer examination.
It’s only two summers since Jim McGuinness delivered an All-Ireland to Donegal and, though the manner in which that was achieved has been forensically examined, there has been little made of the numbers of players involved.
McGuinness gave starts to only 17 players in that campaign. It is an extraordinary statistic and all the more so given the fact that Donegal started out in the wilds of the Ulster preliminary round that May before marching on the metropolis come September.
The actual number of players who play a role come match day in any successful summer is quite contained. In the last five seasons, no All-Ireland winning manager has started more than 20 players or used anything north of 25 in total. The perception is that managers routinely empty their sidelines of able-bodied men until the rules say ‘no more’, but only Kerry of those All-Ireland winners since 2010 have used up their full allotment of replacements.
Just as pertinent in all that is the fact that Eamonn Fitzmaurice didn’t call for his last two substitutes – Bryan Sheehan and Kieran O’Leary – until 68 and 70 minutes respectively had been drained from the afternoon. The bigger the stakes, the smaller the pool of players entrusted.
All of which isn’t to say that the value of those ‘riding the pine’ isn’t immense.
It clearly is. Kerry’s bench contributed three points – all from frees – against Donegal last year and won by that same margin. Dublin would have finished level with Mayo the year before had Eoghan O’Gara not popped one over the bar on his introduction.
Most obvious of all was the game-changing contribution of Kevin McManamon in 2011 given it was his 64th-minute goal after being introduced midway through the second half that swung a game that had been escaping from Dublin’s grasp back in their favour against the Kingdom.
“Our line has been our best asset in having lads to come in when legs are tired in a defence,” says Dublin’s Bernard Brogan. “They can come in and add a bit of energy and kick their own scores, but also create stuff.”
As far as benches go, there is only one other that can match them and maybe more. As everyone knows, Kerry rocked up to their first meeting with Cork earlier this summer with 21 All-Ireland medals, 17 All Stars and so much more held in reserve.
Brogan could have been just easily talking about the Kingdom when observing “that loads of bodies” in the Dublin squad would start in other jurisdictions and yet you wonder if others couldn’t make a better fist of amassing 20-25 players of real quality behind their banners.
Fermanagh have, if nothing else, demonstrated that those among the lesser lights need not crumble even on those occasions when their best and brightest come a cropper.
“There is a core group in every county,” says Gavin. “The Fermanagh example the last day (against Westmeath): Ryan McCluskey and Marty O’Brien are off the field inside 20 minutes and they still have the resources to put away a Westmeath team who certainly put it up to us.
“So, absolutely, the Fermanagh model demonstrates that if teams can be ambitious and if they’re prepared well, coached well, managed well and obviously if they have the technical ability, then they can do well.”
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