It’s two months that have passed since Mayo’s defeat at the hands of Kildare but the blood-letting of the past week has ensured that, even on All-Ireland final week, Mayo is still the biggest GAA story in town. But let’s take our eyes off Mayo and look at this final before framing it in the context of the next phase for Mayo.
The last two months has given me an opportunity to watch a considerable amount of football through unbiased eyes. When I watched Dublin in the past, I was always trying to weigh them up from the perspective of what chinks Mayo could find in their armour. This year I just sat back and observed.
At the same time, I have read a number of books on what it takes to perform at a high level. One of the most interesting was Bob Rotella’s How Champions Think: In Sports and in Life. Looking primarily at his experiences of dealing with US sports people in golf, basketball and baseball, Bob outlines the attributes of those he describes as extraordinary people. He talks about the difference between practice and performance, the need to get beyond the comfort zone, the attitude of winners and trusting the “learned unconscious”.
It was this notion of the learned unconscious that piqued my interest and one that I found again in Dave Alred’s The Pressure Principle. It concentrates on taking the skills learned in practice, and utilising them to their full potential in a performance situation.
So how does this relate to Dublin? We have often heard people complain that Dublin play like robots. They have several similar players and they seem to have a conveyor belt of new replacements every year. But that is just a reflection of what they do in training. They do the same things over and over again until it can be done without thinking about it. It becomes the learned unconscious.
They work to a system. When they break, they work the ball up to the 65m line and then use a 3-man move to break the opposition blanket defence (which everyone uses now). One guy has the ball, a second makes a run, pulling a defender with him and creating a hole in the blanket. A third guy runs into the space created and collects the ball facing in the direction of the opposition goal. This pushes the defence back and creates the space for a shot. If the shot is not on, they do the 3-man move again and try to draw a foul or get a shot off from the scoring zone.
In defence, they work in twos. One guy makes the challenge (concentrating on physically dispossessing the opponent) the other guy’s job is to get the ball.
Their game plan is also the same from day to day. The first 20 minutes are all about putting 6-8 points on the board, the next 15 is about the longer pass, the faster break and the potential for the goal. The second half starts by reverting to getting 4-6 points in the first 15 minutes, then upping the pace by running the bench and wearing the opposition down with relentless scoring. Sometimes, against the stronger teams, they go for a goal earlier, just to sow doubts in the opponents’ minds while reinforcing their belief in their own system.
While they practice this in training all the time, they must have a difficulty in trying to create the pressure scenarios that will transition practice into performance. Given that, the Super 8s were an absolute godsend for Dublin. It gave them a chance to push themselves in pressure situations, while still having the belief that they would win.
Another way that they create performance pressure is by pushing the players to do media work. Give them the script (a mini system), put them in a situation where they are asked questions by strangers (pressure). Assess their performance and give them feedback afterwards.
This concentration on following a system has worked all year and, in the All-Ireland, they will come up against another team that works to a system. Tyrone’s system is not as sophisticated and it relies on a relatively simple strike and defend process.
The key to success in Tyrone’s system is converting each attack into a score, thereby leading from the front for as much of the game as possible. However, if Tyrone go 5 or 6 points down, the confidence in their system goes down, they start chasing the game, their system then goes out the window and the game is lost.
I expect that will be the situation around the 55 minutes mark on Sunday. Dublin expects, and I can’t see their procession to four-in-a-row being disrupted. If their winning margin is less than 8 points, I will be surprised.
So the inevitable questions arises, why have Mayo pushed Dublin so hard in All-Ireland finals? The reason is that Mayo got under their skin and disrupted the system. Mayo pressured all three men in the Dublin attacking system and gave them no time on the ball. Make no mistake, Dublin feared Lee Keegan, they didn’t like Cillian O’Connor and they had a healthy respect for a few more of the Mayo crew.
They do not regard any other team in this way because no other team disrupts their current system like we did. They trust the system and expect to win, but when their opposition creates doubts, they wobble.
Remember the way Donegal took them apart a few years ago when the Dublin defensive system was destroyed? Dublin completely collapsed that day as the system failed and their confidence failed with it. The following year they redesigned their defensive system, brought in a few hard men (most notably Cooper and McMahon) and started to use a sweeper. It was enough (just) to keep ahead of us in the following three years. Regrettably though, there is nothing more we can do about it this year. Dublin are cantering to a four-in-a-row and we are on the outside looking in.
But as the evenings begin to close in, as the Mayo blood-letting ceases, whoever is in charge next year will get back to the drawing board. The No 1 priority of the new management team will not just be to get back to where we were, but to come back better than before. To achieve this, we need stop thinking of ourselves as the second best team in the country and start working on a system that will make us the best.
As Bob Rotella says, “If you are always concentrating on making the cut, you will never win the championship”. We need to have our own system that WE impose on others. We need to be brave and the incoming management team must take bold steps to instil that bravery in the squad.
We have the talent in the county that is required to bring us back to the top table, but we must start putting trust in the new lads that are breaking into the squad. And a key thing that must be done is to bring in a forwards coach into the backroom team who will concentrate on how we can get a higher return from our forwards.
As a Cairde Maigheo member, I’ll be renewing my membership for 2019 as soon as it is available.
But for now, despite all the noise that we will hear about four-in-a-row, there is work to be done to get the squad ready for what that next season will bring.
Keep the Faith!