Dublin selector Declan Darcy is sure that the ever-increasing demands on inter-county players will see more and more of them follow the examples of Rory O’Carroll and Jack McCaffrey by walking away from the game.
The reigning champions will be seeking back-to-back All-Ireland titles when they face Mayo in Sunday’s 2016 decider and they do so without the All-Star full-back and the 2015 Footballer of the Year who declared themselves unavailable this season.
Darcy admits it is difficult for a man of his generation to get his head around the idea that young men would walk away from such a successful, special team at the heights of their own powers, although he understands that times have changed.
He has watched players such as Johnny Cooper develop through from the age of 16 and, though he joins Gavin in stressing that O’Carroll and McCaffrey would be welcomed back with open arms, he knows others have, and will again, follow them on more diverse, personal paths.
“Absolutely, because the problem with the GAA games is there is so much expected and the free time for a county player … his time is narrowing and narrowing down. You’d wonder where is that balance in them for that enjoyment as well, so it is very tight now.
“You can see why they say ‘I’ve just had enough if this now, I just want to go.’ We can totally understand it, and I think it’s going to happen more. I mean, (Armagh’s) Jamie Clarke decided to head off and I think there’s going to be a lot more of that within groups.”
Darcy has met McCaffrey since his return from abroad but bats away inquiries as to the duo’s intentions for next season, with a reminder that the focus for now is on a more immediate and tantalising topic.
He would probably balk at the description himself but Darcy is a football intellectual.
Whereas the majority of those in Croke Park on Sunday will be fastened to the emotional ebb and flow of the game, Darcy will be approaching it from a more detached, clinical view. In that, he is emblematic of this Dublin team as a whole. “My father goes to the match and he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. He doesn’t know why fellas are here, there or anywhere. He doesn’t see it. He doesn’t see the kick-outs or anything. He just sees the ball going over the bar. I look at it in a different way, but that’s from a coach’s viewpoint.”
Nothing happens by chance anymore. Dublin may play a delicious brand of attacking football, but it is far removed from the more off-the-cuff version of the game played by the county in times past when they seemed to live and die on their ebbing and flowing levels of adrenaline.
Tactics are worked on assiduously away from the bright lights and, though Darcy talks about subtle tweaks that may be made unnoticed on the sideline during a game, the ambition is that the players are drilled to the extent that they can adapt on the hoof as the situation requires.
“The players themselves take ownership of the game as well. It’s important that they’re out on the field of play, the last 10, 15 minutes of that game.
“It’s very hard to get information down to the players to make the big tactical move. They need to understand it.
“If you give them information prior to that they can actually, most of the time, deal with that. That’s leadership and players take ownership. Every game is different and it evolves completely differently. We give them that ownership to change the cause themselves.”
Framing all this will be Mayo. Kerry showed in the 10-minute period before half-time in Dublin’s semi-final that the most painfully prepared of plans can be rent asunder and Mayo manager Stephen Rochford has left his own imprint on the Connacht side this summer.
“I’m sure they’re obviously going to come up with something tactically, but most teams really stick to what they’re good at,” said Darcy. “Like, Kerry at the end of the day more or less played the same way. Mayo might be slightly more defensive but I still think they have to play to their strengths.
“They have a lot of strengths, so is defensive the way to go?” No-one will be more fascinated by the answer than him.
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