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MOSTLY FOOTBALL: Dublin too smart and too good

Friday, 1st September, 2017 6:26pm

MOSTLY FOOTBALL: Dublin too smart and too good

Dublin’s famous defeat against Donegal in 2014 saw them refine their game plan - and now they have it off to a tee, writes Michael Hannon.

When Jim McGuinness brought all 15 Donegal men back inside their own half in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011 against Dublin, he was making a statement. Donegal didn't believe they were good enough to attack Stephen Cluxton's kick-out, but they were okay with that, because they also didn't believe Dublin were good enough to break them down. 

The game was fought in the trenches, finishing eight points to six. McGuinness was right in that Dublin only scored eight points but hadn't counted on his own team only kicking six. 

Donegal had to get better at translating turnovers won into shots taken at the other end of the field. This they did spectacularly over the next three years. 

When the 2014 semi-final between those two sides took place, Dublin managed to kick 0-17 and really should have added a couple of first-half goals to that tally. 

They famously lost that game, of course, and while they had improved immeasurably at breaching the mass defence, they were doing so at the expense of conceding scores in transition to a Donegal side who had become a formidable counter-attacking outfit. 

A few short weeks after that result I was walking into Parnell Park to watch a Dublin club championship game when I heard a broad Dublin accent bellowing out my name from behind. 

Turning round, I saw Dublin forward Kevin McManamon walking behind me, an old team-mate from my college days in DIT. 

We went inside and sat together for the games and pretty quickly the conversation turned to mass defences as the action in front of us unfolded. 

Both of the sides playing that evening were doing so with 13 men back behind the ball and I joked to Kevin that McGuinness had a lot to answer for. Everybody was lauding McGuinness in the media for being a tactical genius at the time but I could tell from Kevin's body language that something was eating away at him. The thing, he said, that annoyed him the most about the semi-final defeat was how Dublin had failed to do what their manager Jim Gavin had told them to do. 

If they'd only done what they said they would, then they would've won that game. The person he felt most disappointed for was Jim Gavin. He felt they'd let him down. 

The thing that struck me most about that game was how Dublin, leading 0-7 to 0-2 in or around the 20-minute mark, continued to turn the ball over as they went in search of score number eight. 

From these turnovers, Donegal were able to launch the counter-attacks that saw them drag themselves back into the game. 

The following spring, news broke in the media how Gavin was enlisting the help of basketball coach Mark Ingle to the Dublin back-room team to help with game play against mass defences. 

Nothing has been mentioned of his involvement with the panel since but Dublin's style of play has evolved so much over the last few years to the point that last Sunday's performance against Tyrone could yet come to be seen as this Dublin side's magnum opus under Gavin. 

Ingles basketball fingerprints were all over last week's victory. Tyrone were given a serious chance by many people of defeating the All-Ireland champions but in hindsight those claims now look foolish. 
Dublin were simply outstanding for the opening 25 minutes, much like they were against Donegal back in 2014. 

However, that day they had relied on some inspirational scores from distance from the likes of Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn. They were the sort of scores that a team was never likely to sustain over the full 70 minutes. 
Last Sunday there was none of that on display against Tyrone. All their openings were beautifully crafted scores from inside the scoring zone. 

Dublin played with such width that they rendered the sweepers Tyrone positioned in front of the goals meaningless. 

They looked like a basketball team who had players hanging out on the three-point line in a semi-circle, ready to attack the basket through a combination of quick hands and two or three quick darts inside. 

The number of scores they gave up in transition were minimal when compared to the Donegal defeat of a few years back. 

Soloing the ball didn’t really happen when Tyrone's blanket was in place, and on the few occasions it did happen, the player went outside, taking the long way past a Tyrone man rather than jinking inside where the extra defenders were. 

Around the 25-minute mark, Dublin suddenly decided to keep the ball, realising that with such a commanding lead the onus was now on Tyrone to get the ball off them rather than for them to continue to keep attacking. 

This contrasted greatly with 2014 against Donegal and showed how comfortable they now are with managing a game from moment to moment. 

Their opening 25 minutes had earned them the right to play the Gaelic football version of tiki-taka as a round of endless fist passes saw them waste valuable minutes on the clock.  

With their attacking template in place they also had added security for when they did lose the ball as there was a nice semi-circle of men always surrounding the turnover, and importantly willing to tackle the entire length of the field. 

Paul Mannion, for example, won a number of turnovers close to his defensive 45-metre line having chased the ball 100 metres back up the field from corner-forward. It was very much an impressive showing of game play in so many ways from Dublin. 

Tyrone's blanket was rendered utterly hopeless. Does this signal the end of the mass defence? Probably not. It takes months of practising playing this way before you get it right. In fact, it takes much longer at practising how to break down a mass defence then it does at erecting one. 

This is one of the seminal truths about basketball. Good defence can be achieved a hell of a lot quicker than good offense and coaches are wise to start working at the defensive end of the court first. 

So I don't see the mass defence going away just yet. Its just as per usual, Dublin are ahead of the curve compared to the rest of Ireland. 

So can they be stopped? You better hope so for while football needed Dublin to beat Tyrone in the manner that they did, it might also need Mayo to beat Dublin in the final. 

If for nothing else than to give the rest of Ireland a little bit of hope that their current domination isn't going to last forever.

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