As we gradually edge our way out of the madness, induced by Covid lockdowns, the mind turns slowly back to football. For years, Mayo GAA has been a passion that has consumed us when the action was underway and that gave us serious withdrawal symptoms when the year’s action was over. Throughout the last twelve months, the radical changes in how society functions have pushed football into the background. And as we begin to crawl out of the long, dark Covid night, the prospect of football is something that lightens the mood.
As yet, probably as there is no certainty on dates for matches and the prospect of actually going to a match is still a long way in the distance, getting the flags out and having the jersey ready haven’t even got on the to-do list. Much less has the scouring of Booking.com begun for hotel deals for Saturday nights in far-flung counties – that is more of a prospect for 2022.
The continued dominance of Dublin is also a dampener on the enthusiasm. Even if we get back to full tilt, we wonder how far further Dublin will have got ahead in the interim. We all know the arguments about money and population, about the fact that it’s 15 years since another county had a home championship game against Dublin, which, by the way, was when Longford played Dublin in Pearse Park in the 2006 Leinster quarter final. There is a general feeling in other counties that Dublin are treated more favourably by the powers-that-be and that they take every opportunity to maximise the benefits of such treatment.
The recent debacle of the early morning training sessions is a case in point. The Dublin county board moved quickly to protect the playing squad by imposing a ban on their manager, thereby discouraging disciplinary action from the GAA at a national level. In reality, Farrell’s ban was a toothless sanction as the next in line in the management team stepped up to continue whatever work is going on. As a result, there was no penalty on the people who were caught and there is a general perception that they have probably moved any covert training exercises to someplace else where they has better sheltered from the eyes of the media.
But when we look at Dublin’s advantages, it’s difficult to conclusively argue how any one advantage is causing the disparity. We can logically state that extra money in itself will not win championships. Just look at the excellent fundraising in the last few years by Roscommon. It has not translated – even at underage – into any increase in dominance. If we look at the number of clubs, Cork has even more than Dublin. We can realistically point to the implementation to the Blue Wave strategy in terms of youth games development in Dublin, but couldn’t similar strategies be developed and implemented in Kildare, or Meath or even Wicklow, all of whom have growing populations, proximity to employment and lots of young players? It can also be argued that all of Dublin’s advantages should also have made the Dublin club teams even more dominant than the inter-county game. This is not the case.
All of this leads to the conclusion that the answer must reside in the way the Dublin inter-county squad is developed, prepared and managed, which brings the chorus from Dublin that everyone else must try harder. Let’s look at the processes in the inter-county squad for a moment.
Any of the top four or five counties will rightly claim that there is no significant difference in physical condition of the players. There is no noticeable strength or skill level difference. Pick out the fittest, strongest, fastest and most skilful players currently playing the game at inter-county level right now and you will see that there is a much better spread across the country than in any recent All-Stars selection. What Dublin seems to have is a number of types of players:
- Goalkeepers – Cluxton and Comerford play in exactly the same style
- Hard man backs
- Fast attacking backs
- Centrefield workhorses – Fenton is arguably their only out and our centrefielder but he is a class apart
- Ball carrying forwards
- Break creating forwards
- Scoring forwards
Every Dublin player fits one of these categories. The day of the flashy, unpredictable, crowd pleasing maverick Dublin player is gone. They all fit into a mould if they want their place. If they don’t fit, they do not get into the squad.
The other thing that is obvious is that Dublin have a playbook of “plays” that they run all the time. In the early part of the championship every year, they hone these plays. With an extended championship that the Super 8s brought, this gave Dublin more opportunity to refine these plays in a championship environment. Training is all about these plays, how each player statistically hit the target and how their numbers can be improved.
This is straight out of American Football and began back in the Pat Gilroy days. In between training, every player is given the opportunity to evaluate their own performance. On match day, this continues as each of the squad not on the match day 26 is collecting data on completed passes, frees won, phases in play, blocks, shots from specific locations, converted shots, etc. All of this is fed back to the data analysis team in real time. Getting squad players to gather the data further engrains the plays into their minds as they know that their own data results in training will determine whether or not they will break into the squad.
What is also analysed is the opposition, both in-game and from recordings of previous games. That is why Tommy Conroy’s card was well marked long before the All-Ireland final. It is also why Eoghan McLaughlin’s exploits were restricted, but Oisín Mullin (whose star was only coming into full luminance) made hay – they just had not done their work on him to the same degree. As anything new emerges in-game with the opposition, that is also fed back to the data analysis team (note how Ryan O’Donoghue was restricted in the second half of the All Ireland). All of this information is then presented to the manager with recommendations for changes as the game progresses.
One really noticeable thing about Dublin is the split between the way they play the first and second halves of games. The first half is a general feeling-out of the game plan and the analysis presented at half-time then determines the strategy needed to close out the win. Once everything resumes, the squeeze comes on in the areas identified and the scores begin to come. An opposition team hoping to drive home any advantage finds these areas of opportunity closed off and the game slips away.
So what has happened is that Dublin have reduced the game to football by numbers. They have gone much further down this road than anyone else and they are really good at it. It was perfected by Jim Gavin as his pilot’s training was built on following the data that was presented to him. Realistically, anyone could be the manager if they are prepared to follow the data. Also, it doesn’t require huge financial resources to do it – a dozen iPads and a few people who know their way around data analysis.
It does, however, require huge commitment to the process by all of the squad and the management team. And it requires a manager who will rely on the data and follow the advice he is given.
Could Mayo do this? Do we really want football by numbers?
I think if the result was an All-Ireland, we’d chance it.
Keep the Faith!