Fortune could favour the brave against Dublin
By John Harrington
When inter-county managers sit down to prepare their team for a match against Dublin, top of their to-do list is to nail a strategy for dealing with Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs.
Broadly speaking, this can be boiled down to two options – either push up to contest the kick-out as much as possible and hopefully force him to go long, thereby giving you a greater chance of forcing a turn-over, or sit back and concede the short kick-out in the hope your defence will be sufficiently tightly packed to repel the inevitable Dublin attack.
If we’ve learned anything from Dublin’s dominance of the game in recent years, it’s that the second option is an increasingly futile one.
Such is Dublin’s ability to play through the lines and shred blanket defences, that surrendering easy possession to them is asking for trouble.
Whereas the only two teams who have seriously troubled Dublin in recent years – Mayo and Kerry – have proven that if you can push up on the kick-out and force Cluxton to go long as much as possible, you can potentially throw a wrench in the finely-tuned Dublin machine.
Last year’s All-Ireland Final was as perfect illustration of just how dangerous Dublin are if they’re allowed to claim easy restarts, but how suddenly human they look if they’re not.
Dublin’s goal in the second minute started with a short Cluxton kick-out to Jonny Cooper and after the ball then went through the hands of Jack McCaffrey and Cian O’Sullivan it eventually came to Con O’Callaghan who finished brilliantly.
That seemed to serve as a reminder to the Mayo players just how important it was to stop Cluxton finding men inside his own ’21 yard line with his kick-outs, and for the remainder of the first half they pushed up on the Dublin kick-out more aggressively than we’ve ever previously seen a team do.
Cluxton was forced to go long more than he usually likes to, and Mayo ended up turning over six of his next 11 restarts as they established an outfield dominance that really should have led to more scores on the board.
It was telling that Cluxton when short with his last two kick-outs before half-time, while in the second-half all of his 11 kick-outs went short to team-mates inside or very close to his ’21 yard line and all were completed successfully.
Mayo were no longer able to successfully pressurise those short-kicks in the second-half because the red-carding of Dublin’s John Small and Mayo’s Donal Vaughan made it a 14-a-side game and opened up far more space for Cluxton to kick into it.
So Vaughan’s rush of blood that saw him retaliate against Small after the Dublin defender’s foul on Colm Boyle didn’t just deny Mayo a numerical advantage on the field, it also put paid to a kick-out strategy that had been a corner-stone of their dominance in the game up to that point.
With all of that in mind, an interesting sub-plot to the 2018 season is the rule change that was passed at Special Congress last year which will now require goalkeepers to always flight their kick-outs beyond the 21-yard line.
That will obviously make life more difficult for Cluxton from the kicking-tee and should encourage more teams to push up on the Dublin kick-out and force him to go long because now they have less space to push up into and won’t be so afraid of leaving themselves exposed defensively.
Recently retired Mayo footballer, Alan Dillon, is convinced that to have any hope of beating Dublin you have to force Cluxton to kick long as much as possible.
But he warns too that the Dublin goalkeeper and his outfield team-mates are such a well-oiled machine from restarts that it will still be very difficult to force turn-overs.
“Well, I think the advantage of playing in Croke Park, it probably won't deviate too much for Dublin because the pockets out there compared to McHale Park or any other pitch in the country are massive,” pointed out Dillon.
“And he has a laser-sharp kick-out. I suppose time will tell, really. But I think the Dublin kick-out is so expertly choreographed that they could find any of their middle eight easy enough into space.
“They'll empty out and they have that athleticism to find pockets. But, you know, you see the likes of Mayo and even Kerry in the National League Final there last year, they did force him to kick long.
“Because it (short kick-outs) is their strength that once they get the kick-outs, in eight or nine seconds the ball could be in the back of the net, or over the bar.
“It's a huge strength of theirs and if you can disrupt that and win parity on their kick-outs and I suppose secure your own then you're in a good position. Because if you can get the opposition on their kick-outs, you have a 50 per cent chance of scoring.
“But, like, he still is the man everyone is trying to catch. And while people think that's their strength, I suppose Dublin are equally as competitive on opposition kick-outs.
“They really squeeze David Clarke or Robert Hennelly. It's a catch-22. While you can focus on Dublin, you have to remember that Dublin always focus on yours too. They're a hard nut.”
They certainly are a hard nut, but it’s clear by now that the only way you’ll crack them is by being brave enough to apply pressure high up the field.
Dublin’s demolition job of Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final surely proved once and for all that a blanket-defence/counter-attack strategy against Jim Gavin’s team is effectively footballing suicide.
Mayo have shown a better option is to back yourself to go man for man as much as possible and try to force turnovers high up the pitch whilst also retaining a solid defensive shape.
“I think so yeah because if you try and play another style of football against Dublin of containment, they'll break you down,” agreed Dillon.
“You have to be really disciplined and focused on how to play another style of football.
“You've seen Tyrone last year and they were dismantled. All of a sudden they were scratching their heads and thinking we've got this horribly wrong.
“The only way is to go out and beat them at their own game really. What's the point in going out to try and contain a Dublin team that you know eventually will break you down?
“In our instance we respect Dublin but we always know that we can beat them on any given day as well.”
It’ll be interesting to see how many teams will adopt that sort of positive approach against Dublin this year, starting with Kildare on Saturday night.
The Lilywhites have a couple of big midfielders who are adept at fielding the ball in the shape of Kevin Feely and Tommy Moolick, so forcing Cluxton to kick long seems like an obvious ploy.
You can be sure too though that Cluxton and his outfield team-mates have been working hard in training to develop strategies that get players into space between their own ’21 and ’65 yard lines.
It’ll be an intriguing sub-plot, not just on Saturday, but for the whole season to come.