Dublin handing some control back to the Gods has changed trajectory of Dessie Farrell’s reign

And yet Dublin and Kerry remain the only two teams at the top end of Gaelic football prepared to take a chance on the magic beans. Last year’s All-Ireland finalists are the ones that will most readily turf a ball up into the sky if they spot half an opportunity to do it. There has to be a lesson in that.

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell is aiming to secure his second Sam Maguire at the helm. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin.
Dessie's Way: Dessie Farrell inherited a team used to complete control but the cracks in the mould left by Jim Gavin left him needing to put his own shape on it - which he has done.

JUST as Davy Byrne was about to drop the ball on to a left boot that has no earthly belonging on a full-back, Eamonn Fitzmaurice was pushing prophetic words through his lips.

“Amazing Marty, when you kick the ball in the final third, you create scores. Who knew?” said the former Kerry boss turned RTÉ co-commentator.

This was last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Mayo had been having joy off their early diagonal kicking game, prompting Fitzmaurice’s astute (and might we add very Kerry) observation.

It would be unfair on Davy Byrne to label what happened next as any less measured. He had a look. With Ryan Basquel causing Padraig O’Hora bother and Mayo having no sweeper in, it was sort of a case of well, why not?

Byrne launched it into the heavens, O’Hora misread the flight and Basquel was through to score a goal that gave Dublin a half-time lead they scarcely deserved, but would go on to build upon with a majestic second half that reignited an entire county.

Dessie Farrell knew what the chalice contained when he took it off Jim Gavin.

You suspect that the fullness of time might offer Gavin an All-Ireland he didn’t win.

The human memory playing tricks as it does, the six-in-a-row will most likely end up clumped under his roof without any space for Farrell’s part in it.

That his first All-Ireland, the team’s sixth-in-a-row, was won in an empty stadium a week before Christmas makes it so distinctive and so forgettable all at once.

The line of separation between the two reigns is more marked at the point of August 2021, when Mayo became the first team for 2,540 days to beat Dublin in championship football.

At half-time, Dublin led by six and were in complete control.

In the second period, they were turned over 13 times when they had the ball. Eight of those 13 turnovers led directly to Mayo scores, and ultimately victory for James Horan’s side.

The most symptomatic moment was seeing Ciaran Kilkenny, who made a career out of almost never giving the ball away, launch a free 50 yards down the middle on top of a tightly-marked Con O’Callaghan who was in no real position to do any harm with the ball even if he’d won it. Forty seconds later, Tommy Conroy pushed Mayo within a single point.

For a team that had become masters of control, it was an extraordinary way to lose.

In his book entitled The Hill, Bernard Brogan had noted that come the 2019 season, first-phase possession for a Dublin inside forward was a pipe-dream.

“This year in particular there’s a real emphasis on retaining possession until a high percentage shot opens up, even if it means keeping the ball for two to three minutes at a time. And it’s working,” he wrote.

“We’re now the best in the country at it and it’s probably what we’re now best at: controlling possession, the tempo, the game itself. But I’ve said it in a couple of team meetings this summer, I still feel that when there’s an opportunity to play it inside, it needs to go.”

That second half in 2021, Dublin lost control. Of what had made them unbeatable, of the ball, of the game.

The following spring they were relegated from Division One and looked completely bedraggled.

Diarmuid Connolly’s comments in early 2022 have proven to be very close to the mark.

“They’ve been found out a bit in the league, they’re too slow with the ball coming out; coming back and forward and sideways. For me, they just need to be more direct in their play,” he said.

“Dublin don’t seem to kick that ball into the 14 spot, but then again they don’t have Con O’Callaghan there. Maybe when he comes back, they might have the longer option.

“But at the minute it’s just too static and they need a bit of ‘je ne sais quoi.’ This possession-based football worked for years, but most teams are happy to go toe-to-toe now and just drop one man back to sit in front of the back line, so Dublin need to come up with something new.”

Their summer only ended when, having seemingly caught up on Kerry, Seanie O’Shea dipped first at the line.

Yet Dublin ended 2023 as All-Ireland champions.

They did so looking like a team that had their shackles removed. In 2021 and ‘22, they just didn’t quite fit the mould Jim Gavin had left.

To control games and drive the opposition crazy with their possession game to the point where they’d step recklessly out of the defensive line and facilitate the inevitable, it just wasn’t their thing any more.

There remains a certain element of that in their play but no more or less of it than any of the other top teams.

Rather, what has begun to differentiate Dublin again is almost the exact opposite.

It is that they have placed some of their fate back in the hands of the Gods.

That Colm Basquel goal against Mayo was one of a host of recent examples where the Dubs, in particular Brian Fenton, have been willing to just lace the ball in to a 50-50 situation.

We saw it again on Saturday night past when Fenton looked up and saw Con O’Callaghan and Paddy Small two-on-two inside. In it went from 60 yards. Small gets hands to it, Dylan Casey put hands on him and they had their reward from the penalty spot.

The biggest risk can bring the greatest reward.

None of this is to say Dublin have become a wild, gung-ho outfit.

But they have changed. They are more direct again. Even the sight of Ciaran Kilkenny taking on his man and bursting past him against Kerry, in situations where previously he might have taken the safe option and recycled possession.

That’s before you start on O’Callaghan.

Trends are set by winners and the two teams that ended up in last year’s All-Ireland final were the two teams most willing to put their boot to the ball on the counter-attack.

It is part of why Derry-Dublin is such an interesting fixture this weekend.

Talk of the Oak Leafers being the best team in the country is severely premature but what they most definitely are is a team much keener to look up and use the kick pass than under Rory Gallagher or Ciaran Meenagh.

When they won their opening round league game in Tralee, Chrissy McKaigue’s comments were worthy of note

“Maybe tonight you saw we were trying to move the ball by foot a bit more, hopefully that was apparent. I think that’s the next evolution of our game, to play a wee bit more like Dublin and Kerry in terms of using the foot pass a bit more, but we have to be conscious of not giving kicking a bad name, as Gavin [Devlin] talks about. Let’s kick it when it’s on and accept when it’s not on.”

Armagh showed the pros and cons of it in their crunch Division Two clash with Donegal last weekend.

It was off Ciaran Mackin’s long delivery that Andrew Murnin got in behind for the game’s only goal. But they’d gone out really keen on it and Donegal picked off four or five kicks inside before that one stuck for Murnin.

And yet Dublin and Kerry remain the only two teams at the top end of Gaelic football prepared to take a chance on the magic beans.

Last year’s All-Ireland finalists are the ones that will most readily turf a ball up into the sky if they spot half an opportunity to do it.

There has to be a lesson in that.