How did Dublin get here? How did it come to this? In all the keening and wailing since last Sunday, it has felt a lot of the time as though people have been zeroing in on the wrong thing. Like we’ve been collectively burying the lede, our gaze fixed on Paul Daniels when really we should be keeping an eye on Debbie Magee.
The game has had one of its intermittent Death of Football weeks. A couple of choked, shackled games plonked themselves in the bowl alongside some classic hurling matches, like someone pouring Bovril into the punch. Cue the Something Needs To Be Done Olympics. The flame that never goes out.
This week, the war crime was Roscommon holding on to the ball for the length of a Ken Burns documentary. You’ve seen it by now – 77 passes, 45 of them backwards, almost exactly half of them involving goalkeeper Conor Carroll. That it ended in a jinking, curling score from Ciaráin Murtagh has been reduced to a side-detail. Pistol shots ring out on a Croke Park Sunday and suddenly the Rossies are Rubin Carter.
Dessie Farrell must be delighted. All the talk and energy expended on the woes of Gaelic football is attention that is not being funnelled down on top of his Dublin side. No better week to hide a bad performance.
But the struggle is real. That neither Roscommon nor Kildare actually beat them is hardly the point. In the previous five seasons, Dublin had played five games against that duo and the average margin of victory was 15 points. But now, at home, in perfect conditions, they’ve looked wan and toothless. Nothing like potential All-Ireland winners.
“I’m not sure Dublin like other teams controlling the play,” Rossie manager Davy Burke said after the game. “I think Kildare gave everyone a little template here a few weeks ago on how to frustrate them a little bit. I thought we might be able to take that on a little bit and we did for a while. We’re just disappointed we didn’t see it out.”
The Dubs were always finding new ways because they knew people would copy the old ones. But look around the championship now and all the new ideas are coming from other teams
Funny thing. Three and half minutes into the Roscommon keep-ball session, the theatre critics up on Hill 16 started booing. This possession stuff was apparently not to their liking. Instantly, we were transported back 12 years, to the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Donegal.
The Hill booed back then too but on that occasion, their ire was aimed at Donegal for setting up camp inside their own 45. Now that Dublin 2023 were doing the same thing, they decided that it was Roscommon who were to blame for the spectacle. You don’t need to be much of a shrink to see that their frustration was really with their own team.
Farrell’s Dubs are the biter bit. They more or less invented the possession game that teams are now strangling them with. A few years back, one former Dublin player who spoke to The Irish Times for a piece on Stephen Cluxton laid it out in basic maths.
“It comes down to percentages,” he said. “There are 50-something kick-outs in a game. If we secure 95 per cent of ours and 15 per cent of theirs, we control the game. Once we have possession, it’s a matter of moving the ball around and waiting for a one-on-one to happen.”
That was Dublin then, that is Dublin now. But while they haven’t changed their playing style in any significant way, the rest of the country has studied them, worked out a plan and used it to catch up. Speaking to Pat Gilroy a couple of weeks ago, he identified the fact that so many more teams are physically capable of keeping pace with Dublin now in a way that just wasn’t the case when he was manager between 2008 and 2012.
“What that changes is it means that teams attack and defend as much more of a unit now,” Gilroy said. “In the early days of the massed defence, you might find yourself facing a team who had 15 men inside their own 45, fair enough. But when they turned it over, you would probably only have five fellahs coming at you. Now, when you turn it over, you have the whole 15 coming at you, goalkeepers included. Teams need to be incredibly fit to do that.
“Because of that, the game slows down for periods now in a way it didn’t used to. Regardless of how fit you are, you can’t keep running up and down the pitch at full pelt all day. So the game has to slow down to allow you pick your way through it.
“There isn’t as much hard running, or at least not as much sustained hard running. You have to be a lot more accurate, a lot more physical, a lot more patient and a lot more thoughtful. The end-to-end stuff happens very little because it tends to be a slower transition.”
All of which is fair enough, up to a point. As a diagnosis of the trends in the game up to this stage of the 2023 championship, it’s pretty on the money. But Dublin’s great strength over the years wasn’t just their physical prowess. They won as much by thinking their way around problems as running through them.
Between 2006 and 2016, Cluxton halved the average time he took to get a kick-out away, from 28 seconds to 14. That was fundamental to how Dublin changed their style, prioritising possession above the all-action, buccaneering rampage of old. Against Roscommon last week, Cluxton took 18 kick-outs – three were delayed for substitutions or a yellow card, the other 15 he got away at an average of 11 seconds per kick. Plan B for Dublin amounts to doing Plan A better. Possession is all.
But when everyone is more or less doing the same thing, that has historically been the point at which Dublin have come up with something different. Whether it was the basketball screens to create pockets against massed defences, darting cornerbacks spearing through the middle to pull defenders out of position, even that fist in the air that told everyone to get their breath and reset – the Dubs were always finding new ways because they knew people would copy the old ones.
But look around the championship now and all the new ideas are coming from other teams. The marauding goalkeeper thing started in Ulster and spread like wildfire – although not to Dublin, as it happens. Derry started the wheeze of packing the full-forward line with five players inside the 13-metre line, all the better to create shooting room around the D. Now most serious counties do the same.
What’s been Dublin’s big idea? Beyond bringing back Cluxton, Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey, it’s hard to see an obvious one. But though the three of them have performed – McCaffrey’s second half against Kildare was a particular spark when badly needed – they are generally the same Dublin as they’ve been throughout Farrell’s time.
The same, but older. Dean Rock’s form has fallen off a cliff – he’s scored one point from seven shots in the past three games. Mick Fitzsimons made his first start of the summer last Sunday and got caught for an early black card. Even Brian Fenton was unusually slapdash last week, spilling ball over the sideline and scuffing a late chance short.
Let’s go back to where we started. The Roscommon possession orgy that so horrified the nation started with a Carroll kick-out. On commentary, Paddy Andrews prefaced it with: “Dublin have 13 players inside the Roscommon half. They’ve put a big push up on this kick-out.” And they had. But it lasted just four seconds.
Once Roscommon put their first three passes together, every Dublin player started to drop back. They slowed to a walk and got into formation. The game plan was clear. Retreat, contain, be patient.
And maybe it will be enough. Calling this a wide-open championship is another way of saying there’s no outstanding team. Maybe Dublin will make it through to the last four on muscle memory and maybe out of nowhere, the earth begins to move and they feel the needle hit the groove.
But from this vantage point, they look more like a team waiting on a slow death.