Jim Gavin challenges Dublin players to force their way into his plans
By John Harrington
Dublin manager Jim Gavin challenged his players to force their way into his plans for Sunday’s All-Ireland Football Final in the aftermath of their semi-final victory over Tyrone.
Bernard Brogan didn’t feature at all in that match and Diarmuid Connolly was only introduced in the final minute of normal time, but Gavin has insisted his first choice XV is not set in stone despite the comfortable nature of that win over Tyrone.
“There is a blank sheet,” said Gavin at Dublin’s All-Ireland Final media day.
“And it’s the choice that players make and what they bring to every session that will populate that team sheet of 26 players for the All-Ireland final.
“What I’m interested in really is the present and what form players are bringing into this massive battle that we have.”
It would have been very interesting to have been a fly on the wall for the in-house match the Dublin panel played behind closed doors last week.
You can be sure every player was going at it hammer and tongs as they made their own personal case for inclusion in the team to face Mayo in Sunday’s All-Ireland Final.
Gavin admits the competition for places in the panel “does create its own tension”, but not at the expense of team-spirit or unity.
“There is a great camaraderie among them. From the guys who are there for several years to the guys who have come on to the panel this year. There’s a great spirit among the group.
“And they understand that to get the 15 on the field of play, they have to demand excellence from each other – or try and strive towards it.
“That does create its own tension. They understand as well that one of their greatest strengths is that honesty piece that they bring to the session.
“And the hard work. And if they can get that balance right and have trust and faith in the management team that we’ll do the right thing, that has always been the way.
“Of course they all want game time. We do understand that. But if it’s the last quarter of the game that I’m asking the player to play or the full expanse of the game, that is the best thing for the team.”
The depth of talent in the Dublin panel is the perfect safeguard against any diminishment of hunger in the wake of the last two All-Ireland titles in a row.
Every player knows if he loses his edge there’s someone of the same footballing calibre who is ready and willing to take his place in the team.
“I think what we've learned is that you have to improve, you can't remain static,” says Gavin. “Each season that we've taken the team, we've tried to evolve.
“Each game we've tried to evolve, even from the game against Tyrone, we've identified things we have to work on and we're going to have to get them right against Mayo.
“So, that's probably the learning piece, it's the growth mindset piece that we have learned that we have to keep moving forward.
“We're on the right track, there's no doubt about that, but if we remain static, you can see the evolution of the Mayo team and the bits that they're adding to their game.
“I think the game is evolving all the time, we just have to keep pace with it.”
Even though they won last year’s All-Ireland Final after a replay, Gavin admitted his team had under-performed over the course of both matches against Mayo.
He believes he and his management team have established why that was the case, and have taken steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“We did yeah and we've been working on it during the season, that's for sure,” said Gavin.
“There's lots of elements, both our attacking and defensive play that we need to improve on. We've been working on it diligently during the National League and during the championship games.
“The ultimate test is an All-Ireland final against a great Mayo team. That's where we'll know if the lessons of last year have been named.
"The last couple of occasions where we've met, there really has been a bounce of a ball between us so I don't see any different on All-Ireland final day.”
Gavin believes there’s a very simple explanation for Mayo’s ability to consistently put it up to his Dublin team in a way so few other sides are currently capable of doing.
“They just have good players,” he said. “Any time we've met them, there's been three management teams we've met now in the last few years and each one of them have brought something different and something unique and they've all been very good.
"A very good backroom team, they're very well prepared. They seem to have a good blend this year. You see the experienced players across from ‘06, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Barry Moran on the bench, Chris Barrett coming strong, that group of players are still the bedrock of the team.
“But you can even see the 2016 U21 team being introduced now, Loftus, Coen, Boland and obviously Diarmuid O'Connor. So they've a nice blend now of experienced players and new players pushing through. Quite similar to ourselves actually."
What also makes Mayo a harder nut to crack than most is the fact that they’re a less predictable team than many Dublin have faced in recent times.
They knew exactly how Tyrone would set up in the All-Ireland semi-final and were able to plan accordingly, but Mayo are more tactically flexible.
They’re capable of operating with a sweeper one day and not the next, while players like Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, and Aidan O’Shea are capable of playing in a number of different positions.
“They just have a wealth of talent. So yeah, they can mix it up,” agreed Gavin.
“And you saw last year with the goalkeepers, they made the brave the decision to change it up. The same again with Aidan O’Shea. Very versatile player.
“A big fulcrum of their game plan. Plus, they can change their game plan. They can run the ball, they can kick it as well.
“So they pose threats on many levels and I thought against Kerry in the first half, the 17 shots they had, they got seven points and they probably would have been disappointed with that.
“They’ve been wrapping up big scores and they’ve been very impressive.
“So, yeah, you need to prepare for all angles.”