Superior skill the key to Dublin's dominance
By John Harrington
In team sport at an elite level, superior skill is generally what divides the best from the rest.
In a contest of fine margins, that ability to produce a piece of game-breaking magic under pressure is usually decisive when two well-conditioned and highly motivated teams lock horns.
There are many reasons why Dublin have strung together an incredible unbeaten sequence of 35 matches and firmly established themselves as the greatest team of this decade.
But the most important factor in their dominance is that they have a greater mastery of all the skills of Gaelic Football than any other team right now.
Mick Bohan certainly believes so, and he’s well qualified to pass judgement.
He was Dublin manager Jim Gavin’s ‘Skills Coach’ in 2013 and 2014 before stepping away for personal reasons, and played a big role in establishing the culture of excellence that has made them such a formidable force.
“In my opinion in the modern era, I don't think we've seen a team with the skill-set that this group has,” says Bohan.
“This group are the whole package. They have a high skill-set, they're extremely mobile, they're very driven.
“And obviously the key factor in all of that is that Jim has driven a mindset to play every game to the finish no matter what they're in.
“And that's what they do. They don't come beating many drums or try to put on a face that they don't have. What's phenomenal about them is that they're able to execute those skills in incredibly pressurised situations.
“And they've done it time and again. Even watching their performances at the moment which are nowhere close to what he would expect out of them, but the way they're able to execute those skills in cauldron situations like their game a couple of weeks ago against Kerry.”
When Jim Gavin took charge of the Dublin team he had a vision for how best to build on the rock-solid foundations laid by his predecessor Pat Gilroy.
As Dublin U-21 manager he had placed a premium on attacking, skilful football, and that was the blueprint he was determined to follow in the senior grade too.
“Jim has led the thing extremely well, he watched, he learned, and when he saw whatever qualities people could bring, he went after them,” says Bohan.
“He wanted a very mobile unit who were able to play all facets of the game. He wanted them to be good tacklers, good kickers, good scorers.
“And that's the evolution we're seeing. We're seeing a group who are becoming very competent in all facets of the game.
“Now everybody else has to climb the ladder to get up there. It's not just good enough to be a really good tackling team, or a very defensive team, because they still have players who can outscore you regardless of what you put in front of them.
“From 35 to 40 metres from goal, they have players who can score from there.
“And the only reason they can score from there is that they've developed the skills to do it.
“If you look at other counties, you may get individuals like Conor McManus or these guys who are able to do it, but all of Dublin’s forwards can.”
Jim Gavin has of course benefited from the fact that Dublin’s well organised underage coaching structures and high-performance squads are producing so many talented young footballers.
The first priority for any county with serious ambitions of knocking them from their pedestal is to develop their own coaching structures to the highest standards if they haven’t already done so.
But Bohan believes senior inter-county managers can close the gap in the short-term if they follow Jim Gavin’s example of placing an emphasis on honing the skill of his players.
That can often take a leap of faith for managers who don’t enjoy much job security and believe working hard on the physical conditioning of their players is quickest way of raising standards.
Yet Bohan saw first-hand when he coached the Clare footballers last year that you can raise the skill-level of a panel in a short space of time if you make that a priority.
“When I went to Clare last year, when I saw them first in November, I couldn't get over the poor level of skill they had,” he says. “I was honest with them and said it from the start that it was a shock.
“What I saw very quickly, in a period of three months, was massive improvements in lots of aspects. Both in terms of their skill and their understanding of the game.
“I had one player in particular who played in a central position for Clare who couldn't kick the ball and told me he hadn't kicked the ball for the past five or six years. That his job was to offload it.
“Not only did it get to a situation by the end of the season whereby he became a 70-30 kicker - someone who kicked the ball 70% of the time and hand-passed it 30% of the time - he also started to use his other foot. This player was 34 years of age.
“A lot of time fellas could be very well conditioned and extremely mobile, but if they don't know when and where to run, then they don't look it. So nobody sees it.
“You've a lot of players around the country who are in the exact same mode conditioning wise as the Dublin footballers, but we don't see that mobility because they don't have the same understanding of how best to play the game.
“That goes back to coaching rather than to training. That whole aspect of Gaelic Games, for me, is changing substantially.”
Bohan himself was previously of the opinion that once a player got to a certain age there was little point asking him to work on his weaker foot, instead he should just try to make his strong foot stronger.
But working with Dublin footballer Eoghan O’Gara in 2013 opened his eyes to just how much a player could improve his skill-set if he made it a priority, regardless of his age.
Bohan did 36 one-on-one sessions with O’Gara that year, initially because the Templeogue-Synge Street club-man was injured, but once the benefits of the work became obvious they kept it up after he returned to full fitness.
When he first joined the panel O’Gara was totally one-footed, but the end of the 2013 campaign he was a very different animal.
A staple of Dublin training sessions at the time was a ‘36-shot challenge’ devised by Bohan that required players to kick at goal from a variety of angles and distances of both feet.
The Friday before the 2013 All-Ireland Final, O’Gara scored 33 of his 36 shots.
Some might say it’s easier for the Dublin team to make those sorts of gains because their financial muscle and massive backroom team gives them a wealth of expertise not available to other county squads, but Bohan doesn't think that's the case.
“I spoke to a county this year who told me they didn't have someone to help their main stats man because they couldn't afford it,” he says.
“And they didn't have somebody to do the kit-man because they couldn't afford it. And they didn't have someone to take players free-taking because they couldn't afford it.
“I was there thinking to myself, well every person involved in the Dublin set-up, with the exception of the medical staff, was there on a voluntary basis. So the cost factor then doesn't make sense to me.
“It's a matter of finding the right people who want to help you, and there's loads of people in every county who would be really willing to give up their time for the game that they love. So that isn't an excuse.”
Other counties have little option but to work hard to catch up with Dublin, because there’s little chance of Jim Gavin’s team coming back to the pack.
Their culture of high-achievement and the competition within the panel is now so ingrained, that it’s second-nature.
And very year they continue to bring through quality players with the ability to improve the team.
Conor McHugh is one of the most recent additions who has really caught the eye with his mastery of both the obvious and more subtle skills of the game.
Bohan knows McHugh well having coached him at DCU, and believes the Na Fianna man is a good example of why Jim Gavin’s team continue to go from strength to strength.
“We dealt with him in DCU and he was good young fella, a very talented kid coming through,” says Bohan.
“He was brought into the Dublin senior team three years ago but didn't have the work-ethic he needed to have.
“He was brought back in again two years ago, but didn't sit into the environment that was there because he wasn't doing it to the level that was expected.
“He’s back in now and all of a sudden his mindset has changed, his skill-set has changed and he's performing in that environment.
“The reality in all of that is that Jim Gavin sets the standards, and he now has players regardless of what stage they come in, they either abide those standards or they don't stay.”