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Where is it going wrong for Dublin and what can they do to fix it?

The Sky Blues are a team stuck between generations and styles of play.

Dublin's Sean McMahon leaves the field after the game.
Dublin's Sean McMahon leaves the field after the game.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

LET’S BEGIN WITH some unwanted statistics for Dublin. 

This is the first time they’ve lost three competitive games in-a-row since 2009 and their first time losing successive league ties since 2012. It was their largest defeat to Kerry in 13 years. Last week’s loss to Armagh aside, it was their biggest losing margin in a decade. 

For players like Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, Niall Scully and John Small, who only experienced losing a championship game for the first time last August, these are unprecedented times.

Dublin were outclassed by Kerry in Tralee last night, undone by the superior attacking play and movement of their Munster opponents.  

And even still, Kerry’s winning margin could have been far greater. They scored just a point in second half, content to protect the unassailable 13-point lead they’d build up by half-time.

“Everyone thought after last weekend that we’re trying to play possession football,  but we’re a kicking team,” Jack O’Connor surmised to RTÉ after the game. “We’ve been trying to get the boys to kick it.

“In the first-half, despite the conditions, we moved the ball really well throughout he lines and hit good ball inside. When you’ve someone like David Clifford inside you need to be getting him on ball and he was fantastic, particularly in the first-half.”

david-clifford-with-david-byrne David Clifford kicked some exceptional scores for Kerry. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

If Kerry are a kicking team, it’s hard to know what sort of team Dublin are right now. 

They’ll play Mayo in Croke Park next weekend and travel to the lion’s den to Omagh to meet All-Ireland champions Tyrone on 13 March. 

Mayo and Tyrone have suffered at the hands of Dublin on many occasions in the not too distant past. Kicking the Dubs when they’re down is an opportunity both counties will be relishing. 

The big test of character for Dublin is how they react to this morale-sapping start to the season. They’ve a big target on their backs now and are looking vulnerable.

The hunger and fight Dublin show in those games will tell a lot about how the rest of the year will turn out for them. 

Two defeats on live TV and a pair of flat performances have set the alarm bells ringing about the decline of the Sky Blues. 

They’ve still got veterans James McCarthy, Jonny Cooper and Mick Fitzsimons to come back into the fold, plus explosive forwards Con O’Callaghan, Cormac Costello and Paddy Small who will transform their attack. 

Dublin’s forward line last night featured rookies Lorcan O’Dell and Cameron McCormack, in addition to Dean Rock who is well short of his best form. It hardly struck fear into an almost full-strength Kerry outfit.

Given the spate of retirements they’ve suffered in the last 18 months, Dublin have reached a stage where they need to blood young talent and fast. Not alone did they lose seasoned veterans, but the drop-outs of electric athletes like Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion were crushing blows. 

During the Jim Gavin era, he would introduce a player or two each season to reinvigorate a Hall of Fame team and create further competition for places. Year after year, Fenton, Howard, Scully, Small, O’Callaghan, Eoin Murchan were added to an already formidable panel of players. 

Over the past three seasons, only Evan Comerford, Robbie McDaid and Paddy Small broke through to become regular championship starters, while Sean Bugler mainly featured off the bench.

In the Gavin years, gifted newcomers like O’Callaghan and Howard had a couple of years to adjust to senior football before they became regulars. Dublin introduced a host of new players to the panel last year and 14 more this season.

Now youngsters like Darragh Conlon, McCormack and Killian McGinnis are being thrown into the fray without much time to adjust to the enormous step up.

It’s an obvious point, but they’re at a completely different stage of their life cycle than the Kingdom. Jack O’Connor has returned as manager to deliver an All-Ireland title for a group of players who’ve left several big opportunities behind them over the past few years.

Dessie Farrell mentions the word ‘transition’ on an almost weekly basis now.

Dublin look like a team not only transitioning between two generations of players, but also between styles. It has happened quicker than many expected. 

Writing for the Currency yesterday, Paul Flynn made the interesting observation that Dublin need to move on from the possession-based system that became their trademark during the six-in-a-row years. 

“The controlled style of play they have mastered is becoming stale and opposing teams have figured it out,” he wrote. “New styles of play require fresh talent and while it is not abundantly clear where that will come from there is a full league campaign to unearth a few.

“For Dessie and the team to evolve their system to whatever style they decide is required they need to ensure that players have total clarity and belief in it and it needs to be the align with their new ‘why’.”

Dublin showed signs of moving to a more direct approach in the O’Bryne Cup, before reverting to type against Armagh and in the first-half against Kerry. 

They scored just 0-9 in the opening 35 minutes of both games combined. A big reason for that is the lack of line breakers coming late from the middle third, and ball winners in the full-forward line. Teams can crowd the D and force Dublin to take pot-shots from outside the scoring zone. 

Dublin did look better in the second period against Kerry – particularly the quality of their delivery to the full-forward line – but in truth the game was long over by that stage.

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While they trial the new talent, it’s up to Farrell’s on-pitch lieutenants like Ciaran Kilkenny, Fenton, Small and Howard to steady the ship. They also need to help the team shed the old style and move towards a better offensive approach.

dessie-farrell It's been a tough start to the season for Dessie Farrell. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

The slump in form since last year’s Leinster campaign has led some to speculate that things are not right in the dressing room with Farrell.

From the outside looking in, there have certainly been aspects he could have handled better.

The Covid training breach last year reportedly led to a fall-out with Stephen Cluxton and the great goalkeeper has played his last game for the county. His absence lingered like a bad smell last season. The uncertainty around his availability was an example of something that wouldn’t have happened under Gavin. 

Paul Mannion was left on the bench for much of the 2020 campaign and departed the panel afterwards. It may not have been his sole reason for leaving, but being reduced to the role of impact sub hardly helped. 

But it can’t all be put down to Farrell. Far from it. 

A depleted squad meant the competition for places isn’t as fierce as it once was, which led to standards slipping. And they miss the defensive awareness of a Cooper or Cian O’Sullivan protecting the full-back line. 

The high-profile absentees haven’t helped.

“The core group of 15 quality players in this team in my view remains unmatched,” argued Flynn. He has a fair point. 

The reality is Dublin could be a different proposition by the end of the league if they can get their established stars back into the team and settle on a style of play that suits this group. That looks a long way off right now, even if it is only early February.

The country will be watching closely at how they react in the weeks ahead.

It will make fascinating viewing. The all-conquering side is no more and strangely, Dublin are more compelling than ever.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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