Donegal, Mayo, Kerry, Dublin and Cork all have the tools and experience to lift Sam but they are going to have to beat each other along the way.
With Donegal, Mayo and Cork you are going to get the same approach we saw last year. With Kerry we are always guaranteed a free flowing natural style of football. The Dublin 2013 case study is slightly more difficult to analyze.
On October 1st 2012 Jim Gavin was ratified as the new Dublin senior manager. A decorated manager with the county under 21s Gavin was the obvious choice in the list of succession after Pat Gilroy.
Gilroy’s success with the senior team was based on a rigid system which relied on hard work, relentless tackling and dogged defence. The modern day role of defensive wing forwards was executed to perfection as Paul Flynn and Bryan Cullen were as valuable around their own 45 as they were further up the pitch.
In the modern game it is the belief that you must employ a system to compete. The systematic approaches of All Ireland winners this side of the Millenium has added weight to this theory. Gone are the days where the team who scores more wins, we are now in the age where the team who concedes less comes out on top.
Kerry and Cork try to employ the 15 on 15 game but often the manner in which the opposition lines out forces their hand. If a team are playing 13men in defence it is impossible to go man for man against them.
Indications from watching Jim Gavin’s underage teams in the past suggest that Dublin will try to employ an orthodox 15 on 15 approach this season. Gavin won two under 21 All Ireland’s playing free flowing man for man football. This is a system of trust – relying on each individual man to be better then his direct counterpart.
There are certain trends in the game which have proved successful for certain counties. The ‘new’ midfield is a combination of size and athleticism. One compensates the other. Look at Donegal last year – Neil Gallagher would play the role of orthodox midfielder while Rory Kavanagh would be the runner – moving with the play. This is not to say that the role of the traditional midfielder is redundant. Gallagher’s semi final performance against Cork was one of the best exhibitions in fielding and simple football to grace Croke Park in years.
Similar to the Kavanagh situation Kerry used the new conversion policy to convert a star forward into a busy bee midfielder. Bryan Sheehan was the best player on the pitch in the 2011 All Ireland final playing at midfield. Last season he again impressed in a struggling Kerry team. Sheehan had made his name for Kerry as a forward and free taker. As a midfielder he has the mobility to exercise his defensive duties but still contribute further up the pitch. Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea is another example of the success of this conversion.
Dublin have yet to adopt this approach. They finished last years Championship with Denis Bastick and Eamon Fennell in midfield. Fennell is a ball winner and Bastick, although athletic, would lean more to the side of traditional midfielder.
Dublin have a shortfall at midfield currently. With Fennell no longer on the panel the depth of options and experience suffers. However they do have the advantage of a very strong conveyor belt of talent in waiting. A minor two years ago Emmett Ó Conghaile could fit the Sheehan/Kavanagh role. With the evolution of strategies it will become impossible to play two orthodox midfielders and therefore the development of Ó Conghaile could be a real asset to Dublin football in the coming season.
Another area where Dublin suffered last season was the consistency of substitutions they were producing in championship games. When we talk of consistency we talk of teams who have a specific plan with regards substitutes. Players will come on at certain times in every game. They know their role and they help develop what has happened on the pitch previous.
Jim McGuinness and Donegal executed this plan to perfection. Declan and David Walsh, Christy Toye and Martin McElhinney would come off the bench with the game in the melting pot and provide a positive impact to help see the game out.
In their 2012 All Ireland under 21 final Dublin were being matched by a very resilient and impressive Roscommon side. Off the bench, as they all had in the semi final the week previous, came Paddy O’Higgins, Gerry Seaver, Harry Dawson and Paul Maguire. Dawson and Seaver scored and O’Higgins cleaned out midfield. Jim Gavin attributed the victory to the impact of his substitutes. As they had against Cork two weeks earlier the numbers 16-20 had been the difference.
Last season Dublin used 14 different subs in 5 championship games. There are certain players that although they may not agree with it, are probably more valuable off the bench. Kevin McManamon is an example of this. For Gavin and Dublin to test Donegal and Kerry down the stretch they will need to introduce five players who could rightfully be starting. A substitute has the benefit of fresh legs but it is often underestimated how tough it is to get into a game which is at full flow. If you have a regular 6 or 7 who are coming off the bench in each game they become accustomed with getting into the game quickly. Their mindset and psychology is altered from that of a starter to that of someone whose job is to go and close out matches.
A modern day substitute is as valuable as a starter. Teams cannot play 70plus minutes with 15 men. Gavin embraces this theory and come August and September it will be those who start on the line that will be making the headlines.
Pat Gilroy left Dublin in great shape to challenge for another All Ireland. The developments in football mean that each area of the game can be systematically prepared for. By developing new options for midfield and continuing his substitution policy Jim Gavin could dethrone the men from the North West next September. In an age of strategies, formations and tactics over-simplication is the key.