Dublin's dominance should be lauded, not lamented
By John Harrington
Dublin’s dominance of Gaelic Football in recent years should be lauded, not lamented.
Rather than wring our hands about the lack of competition in Leinster or the natural advantage a county with the biggest population in the country enjoys, we should hail the greatness of this Dublin team.
Because not only are they setting records for honours won, they’re winning in style and proving there is no substitute for pure skill.
In an era of the game where safety-first, defensive football is becoming the norm, Dublin’s expansive, attack-minded game is a shining light that should lead the way for others to follow.
As Dublin manager Jim Gavin sees it, any other approach to Gaelic Football would be a betrayal of the county’s footballing DNA.
“We are all about expression and we always have been, that bit of creativity,” says Gavin.
“Our inherent game in our Dublin DNA would be...like the club football would be attack-based football. When you see any of the games that are on any weekend in any Dublin Park, it's primarily attack-based football. And that's what we want to do.
“That's the core part of our philosophy. Obviously there needs to be a balance there and we need to control the game and have our defensive structure as well. Most teams want to compress the space and counter-attack into the space that you leave behind.
“So it's about us getting that balance right. We haven't got it right consistently, that's what we're striving to get towards. We'll always be an attacking team as long as I have the baton anyway. It's going after the natural skill-set that players have and they enjoy playing that.”
In his recent GAA.ie column, former Kerry star Declan O’Sullivan expressed the opinion that too many teams now focus on strength and conditioning at the expense of mastering the basic skills of the game.
Dublin wouldn’t have assumed the position of dominance they currently enjoy were they not one of the strongest and fastest teams around, but what really sets them apart from every other team is their skill-set.
The key to their ability to transition so quickly from defence to attack is the accuracy of their kick-passing. It seems to be a dying art in many other counties, but not in Dublin because it’s something they relentlessly work on in training.
“In our training sessions it's all about scoring, that's what we do most of our work on,” says Gavin. “We don't negate defensive duties, we work on that as well, but the catching and kicking, the backs and forwards, taking point-scoring and goal-scoring, that's the core element of any session we take with the boys.
"All of our training is with the ball and it’s football, that’s the way we play it. Obviously you need to hand-pass as well and we work on that skill too, but we like to kick-pass because we have the naturally skilful players that can do that in Croke Park or any of the provincial grounds that are big pitches. It’s the easiest way to move the ball across the ground.
“All of our sessions are skill-based. I can't remember the last time we did a session without the ball. It's a long, long time ago. Going back to pre-season. Foot-passing is a key element of our game-plan and we'll keep going after it.”
The greatest sin a player can commit in modern football, it seems, is to lose possession. Every turnover is studiously noted by the team’s statistician, and offenders are brought to task.
It’s hardly surprising then that so many players now seem happy to take the high percentage option of a safe hand-pass to a team-mate in close proximity rather than get their head up and attempt a more ambitious long-distance kick-pass that would stretch the opposition defence if executed well.
Dublin’s approach is different. Risk is encouraged if it leads to reward, and a player will not be hauled over the coals for taking that low percentage option if it doesn't come off.
“Absolutely,” says Gavin. “That's the paradox I suppose between risk and reward. Some teams will play that game, a complete possession game, where they don't want to turn the ball over. As you can see in any of the games that we play, it's turned over quite a lot. But once the players are playing heads up football and are trying to do the right thing for the team, you know, that's all we want from them.
“To be the best, to play to their natural skill-set, and to play best football that we believe Dublin should play, which is that attacking game. Once a player is making the right decision, the execution of the pass sometimes might be off, and you'll never get a perfect game or a perfect pass. That's unachievable. We're just looking for a high level of excellence. Once the decision is the right decision to make, for example if the goal is on, then go for it rather than pass to someone else."
Many managers will argue they have to build their game-plan around the skill-set of the players and so a safety-first, defensive approach is often the most sensible way to cut their cloth to suit.
But that argument absolves them of the responsibility to improve their player’s skill and show some ambition with their coaching. Gavin’s approach as a manager on the other hand has always been to encourage his team to play expansively, regardless of their skill-set.
“With the U-21 sides that we had, I had them for six seasons – 03 as a coach and then managing for five from ’08 to ’12 – we had varying degrees of skill sets within those squads but our core philosophies remain as true today as they did back in ’03.
“In Dublin that is the football the players understand best, that attacking brand of football. I remember we met Donegal in 2010. It was probably Jim McGuinness’ first team of U-21s and they played very defensively that day, which was interesting to experience.
“I believe we got the balance right in that game between attack and defence and we didn’t go into our shell. We tried to let the boys be creative. It didn’t always work out for us over those six years. We lost as much as we won. We won three All-Ireland titles and we lost three. So, as I said before, there are no guarantees. It is not a straight line and there are lots of bumps and bruises and dips in the road.”
The journey is a much more enjoyable one for the players though regardless of where it ends when they are allowed to express themselves. Success breeds enthusiasm more than anything else. But when you talk to Dublin players like Dean Rock it’s very apparent that the sacrifices required to be an inter-county footballer today are all the easier to make when you’re encouraged to play a positive brand of football.
"We're given the licence to express ourselves, to do that on the pitch which is great for footballers,” says Rock. "We go out to play, to try things and make different things happen.
"Obviously, there are going to be errors but it's team-work, collectively, then, if there is a turnover to try and get the ball back quickly again as quickly as possible. To have that licence to express yourself as a player is great, knowing that you don't have to play a safe pass, that you can play that diagonal pass or killer pass.
"When you know that going out on the field, it certainly helps you to perform. We have a culture of attacking football in Dublin. We like to score points, we like to score goals, we like to put up big scores. That's just the way Dublin have always played. We stick to what we're good at and what we know and we certainly won't shy away from that.”
Dublin’s dark shadow looms large across Leinster, but resenting their dominance is a waste of time for their competitors. Instead, they would be better served doing all they can to replicate the blueprint that has proved so successful for the Dubs.
That's why it was encouraging to hear Westmeath manager Tom Cribbin say this week that his team will go out to attack Dublin in Sunday’s Leinster Final rather than once again adopt the ultra-defensive, safety-first approach that proved so futile in last year’s Final.
Cribbin rightly points out that Dublin have some natural advantages such as a short commute time to training for all of their players that makes the job of coaching and managing them much easier in a myriad of ways. But he acknowledges too that they are very much a self-made phenomenon that their competitors can learn a lot from.
"I think they're super, personally,” says the Westmeath manager. “I think they're as good as the Kerry team of the late '70s, '80s, myself personally.
"I think the level of football being played at, the pace they're playing the game at. Everyone developed this defensive game plan, impossible to break it down – and all of a sudden these lads are playing at a different level, a different pace.
"And everybody goes on about money and 'Dublin have this, they've numbers'…they’ve done it through underage structures. They've developed all these players up through their underage.
“The lads they have involved with them, their attention to detail on the work that goes on…like, last year, one of their backroom team was telling me the amount of work they had done on Westmeath in case they met us in the Final. I couldn't believe it. I was just shocked at the amount of work.
"So when they were doing that on a team like Westmeath in case you got to a final, I'm not surprised they're achieving what they're achieving. Their attention to detail is second to none.”
If others want to get up to Dublin's level, they'll have to match it.