Danny Hughes: All-Ireland final could revolve around Ciaran Kilkenny and Aidan O'Shea
A MAN I hugely admire once said to me: ‘Don’t underestimate the lack of game intelligence in the modern player’.
It was an interesting take on the challenges of coaching proper decision-making.
Another perspective worth questioning is the assertion that the modern player is possibly being over-coached.
From my perspective, if the intention is there in making a decision, but the application is poor, it is a skill issue. Otherwise, it comes down to decision-making. Making the right decision, in the right moment, at the right time.
Dublin are currently the best decision-making team in the country. The players have the skill, but this can be irrelevant if the right decisions are not made in game situations.
I have been critical at times of Ciaran Kilkenny, particularly in terms of a scoring threat.
At times in the past he has been too happy to play it safe, not challenge his marker into having to make a decision outside the comfort zone and playing too laterally.
This season, however, Kilkenny has been much more decisive in his play and has combined his obvious skill and ability to make the right decisions thus far in the Championship.
Tyrone played into Dublin’s hands – in particular Kilkenny’s – in the semi-final and when he wasn’t man-marked for the entirety of the game he simply played the equivalent ‘quarter-back’ role. He is the conductor, the brain, the dictator for the Dubs.
Mickey Harte assumed the ‘system’ would absorb Kilkenny and, like the individual threats in Donegal, Down, Armagh and Derry who threatened Tyrone, he would become irrelevant to the result.
Kilkenny reversed this assumption. He moved the ball from right to left, never carried it into contact and played an instrumental role in the majority, if not all, of Dublin’s scores in that match and the preceding matches to date.
I would hazard a guess that Lee Keegan is Mayo’s only option in curbing Kilkenny’s influence and, given Diarmuid Connolly’s absence, I think it’s only normal to assume that Keegan’s ability as a man-marker can be best utilised in this context.
Stop Kilkenny and you essentially cut off the main arterial route for Dublin to launch wave after wave of attack. Kilkenny simply has to be effectively man-marked to enable Mayo to be competitive.
The time for Mayo to win an All-Ireland is now. The glorious defeats, the supposed ‘curse’ – they are all excuses used to explain away bad decision-making.
Most would agree that Mayo had enough chances in 2016, over both games, to win an All-Ireland.
You can sometimes blame away almost everything. You can find excuses for everything. The reality is, though, that the 2016 All-Ireland final came down to decision-making, not skill levels or fitness. And Mayo had enough skill, fitness and application to get it right. Both management and players were culpable. There should be no controversy around David Clarke this time around.
There still remains an issue surrounding the full-back position and when you look at any of the teams to have won an All-Ireland in the past, a consistent and reliable full-back is imperative as it is one of the most important positions on the field.
I have always felt that a full-back can be the antidote to a sick team. You get that position right and fear and uncertainty will not be as easily spread throughout the remaining players.
This feeds into the next question; where do Mayo play Aidan O’Shea? He doesn’t look comfortable at full-back.
There is a possible opening at centre-half back, flanked by Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle, but then again, would O’Shea have the discipline to hold this position?
Up front, Mayo’s forward line seems to operate more effectively when O’Shea is not there. His selfish decision-making seems to destabilise the other forwards.
While I realise that he has to play, a midfield of Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons looks more effective on the big day, especially considering 2016 when both had decent displays against the same opposition.
If I was in Stephen Rochford’s shoes, I would plump for Aidan O’Shea at centre half-back. However, he couldn’t mark either Kilkenny or Con O’Callaghan, so it’s effectively to mark Dublin’s other half-forward.
What excites me about this All-Ireland final is that Mayo are capable of asking questions of Dublin which no other team has done thus far in the Championship.
Their nearest opponent has been Kerry in this year’s National League final, the only time Dublin have been beaten in the past three seasons.
The way Mayo put Kerry to the sword in the semi-final a few weeks ago will definitely give them confidence that Dublin are beatable.
Does the fact that Dublin have yet to be really tested provide any further hope that Mayo can end their 55-year famine?
It is commonly known that, in any forensics, it comes down to facts.
In the recent past, Dublin have come through campaigns in 2015 and 2016 untested and when the questions have been asked in key games against Mayo, Kerry and Donegal, they have delivered.
So the facts are that Dublin should win this year’s All-Ireland.
All the evidence suggests that this set of Dublin players can answer any question asked.
They have a bench of Allstars, All-Ireland winners, game changers, previous Players of the Year to call on and only six substitutions are allowed.
Never mind the Dublin ‘B’ team, success within this squad can be reassessed as putting yourself into the manager’s thoughts as an option from the bench.
This perfectly sums up the animal of the current Dublin panel when just getting game time has become the carrot for certain players.
Regardless of Dublin winning the All-Ireland for a third time in-a-row, a possible fifth in the last seven years, Dublin have already become the best team since the great Kerry team of the 1970s.
At that time, Kerry talked about five in-a-row and, until Seamus Darby’s famous goal for Offaly, it would have been an unthinkable proposition that it was possible again.
However, Dublin have this opportunity and I think that this ‘legacy’ element is a huge motivating factor for them.
Should Dublin beat Mayo at Croke Park on Sunday, they wil have a great chance in 2018 of equalling the record of the great Kerry team of 1981. And who would bet against them in 2019 becoming the greatest team ever – a scary thought. Dublin to win on Sunday, ironically with the less glamorous tag of being the best team of decision-makers since the Kerry team of 1981.