Dublin are failing in too many basic areas. Their mindset must change - and it must start in Tralee
February 05 2022 02:30 AM
The Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters. One means ‘danger’. The other means ‘opportunity’.
If there’s a neat way to sum up the situation Dublin found themselves in this week, it might be this Chinese interpretation of the concept.
The danger now is obvious, but so is the opportunity.
Tralee on a cold Saturday night. Full house. The Dubs in town. Locals howling at the moon, baying for blue blood.
When I picture it now, Paul Geaney is the first person that pops into my head.
We played Kerry there in 2017 and, unusually, I was marking Geaney.
He’s an excellent forward. Strong. Skilful. Capable of hurting you in a few different ways.
But generally, whenever we played Kerry, Mick Fitzsimons would take Geaney and I’d be tagged with a Kieran Donaghy or a Tommy Walsh to grapple with for 70 minutes.
That night in Tralee, the ground was heaving a couple of hours before throw-in. Everyone was amped up. The Kerry players. Their supporters. You could sense it when we stepped off the bus.
Games like this are a powder keg at the best of times – all they need is a spark.
On a tight pitch, under lights with 30 fellas determined not to flinch or yield a millimetre, it was only a question of when.
Now, during my time playing with Dublin, there were very few things that teams didn’t try to get at our kick-outs.
On this particular night, Kerry figured they’d delay them by kicking the spare balls away from behind Stephen Cluxton’s goal, so that every time the match ball went dead, he’d have to go and retrieve it himself.
Funnily enough, the ball boys at that end seemed to have been given the night off.
The idea was that we’d be slow to restart and Kerry bought themselves a precious few extra seconds to set up their press. Perfect.
That night, Geaney was their main provocateur. He’d stand right in front of Stephen once he retrieved the ball and toe-poke it off the tee.
At this point, I’d like to acknowledge that the following may not come as a major surprise. But I didn’t have much patience for this at all.
So I grabbed Geaney, moved him swiftly from harm’s way and wrestled him to the ground.
It wasn’t premeditated, your honour. I just reacted. Geaney was pushing it, trying to get into Stephen’s head and dictate the speed of our kick-out.
But here was the spark for the fuse on the powder keg. Ka-boom!
Those kinds of rumbles change the tone of a match, especially if they happen early. It’s fight or flight and fellas react in different ways.
Some get energised by a row. They play better and hit harder.
Others are rattled. You can see it in their body language. They shrink. They’re quieter, more reserved for the rest of the game.
Anyway, it wasn’t about kick-outs. Not really.
In those Kerry/Dublin league games, there’s always more than just the match going on. There’s the play within the play.
I always wanted to carve a little perch for myself inside the head of the fella I was marking.
Whether that was by keeping him scoreless, by kicking a point myself or by winning the physical and psychological duel, I’d look for anything.
Listen, I’m not ruling out the possibility that this is all in my own head, but I liked to imagine that if we met them again later that year, he’d be thinking about me the week before. That I’d be one set up in the psychological tennis match before the first ball was served. That was my mindset.
Looking back now in the very early stage of retirement, I didn’t play enough of those games. I loved them.
There’s some genius theory out there that the Dubs don’t like travelling. That we prefer the comfort of Croke Park, but I’d have gone away every week. Genuinely.
We all would. Everybody on our team bus relished those games. I loved going to Kerry. Still do.
Bad performances in the league can be a bit like kicking wides in a warm-up. Best to get them out of your system now.
That doesn’t mean Dublin can disregard last week. Far from it. They failed in too many of the very basics.
For all its tactical evolution, football is effectively a game of space. You create it when you have possession. You eradicate it when you don’t. Dublin did neither last week.
Take the first goal. All evening, Armagh brought men back, jammed up the scoring zone and forced Dublin to send more runners. They waited and squeezed until the Dublin ball carrier wandered down a cul-de-sac, then swarmed and turned him over.
By now, most of the Dublin defenders are in the wrong half, so Armagh move it quickly to a kicker who delivers it long. Now they’re in danger.
No defender in Ireland has a chance against Rian O’Neill in that sort of space. None. Davy Byrne should not have been left in that position.
The best thing he can do in that situation is to defend from behind on O’Neill’s shoulder, allow him to get the ball and push him away from goal so a point is the only option, and then call for backup.
Lee Gannon, a serious prospect, was the closest team-mate, but he’s new and probably still getting to grips with what’s required. Should Davy have called him in?
As for the difficulty Dublin had breaking Armagh down, we won All-Irelands decoding and dismantling defences better than Armagh’s last Saturday, so tactics aren’t the issue. But attitude might be.
Back to our Chinese lesson.
The danger for Dublin tonight isn’t that they lose. It’s that they underperform again, so the noise around the team gets louder and more negative and even harder to ignore. Suddenly, you start reacting to those performances, looking for quick fixes rather than sticking to your long-term plan.
You’re not in control anymore.
If I was still playing, the other Chinese symbol, the one representing opportunity, would guide how I think. In basic terms, Dublin must tackle more, work harder and be aggressive with the ball tonight.
But to do all that requires a change of mindset and attitude and if they didn’t start that process immediately last Saturday night, it’s already too late.
Kerry have their own issues. They demonstrated that in Newbridge last week. They’re beatable. I’m certain Dublin are capable of it if they come with the right attitude.
If there’s a single Dublin player not relishing that opportunity this very second, he’s sitting on the wrong bus.