‘Blitzkrieg: An intense military campaign intended to bring about a swift victory. A short period characterized by an intense, overwhelming effort to accomplish a goal.’
AFTER the game, Kevin McStay was glowing but calm, in the manner of a veteran researcher who has just discovered the cure for cancer. If you had the volume off on the television, you would have sworn Mayo had won. I thought of Pat Gilroy’s reaction after Dublin’s 2009 quarter final annihilation by Kerry and his “startled earwigs.” His blunt assessment of that game and the clear out that followed was the foundation stone for the glorious era that ensued. Gilroy came into us for an episode of Free State podcast a few months ago (‘The lonely passion of Patrick Gilroy’). He told us that he did not leave the house for a month after that defeat, demonically working on radical reconstruction plans. Amongst other things, he drew up a list of 12 players who would never play for Dublin again. After consulting a friend about the list, he decided to relent. “Nine of those players went on to win multiple All-Irelands.”
Gilroy may be the most over-qualified water boy in the history of the game. Like a Michelin starred chef flipping burgers in McDonalds. Since his return to the Dublin set up, the Dubs have been transformed. A team that was boring themselves and their spectators to death, going backwards, sideways, tackling half heartedly, refusing to take their men on and generally squandering their great inheritance, has been brought back to life by the Gilroy defibrillator.
Ciaran Kilkenny was dropped and I have little doubt this was because of his recent habit of playing lateral, risk free football. When he was brought in on Sunday, he was energised, magnificent, surging forward, tackling fiercely. On a few occasions, I swear he briefly thought about going backwards then burst forward, remembering what would be in store for him if he didn’t. Just as Gilroy did with Bernard Brogan in 2011, he has electrified Kilkenny by leaving him on the bench for several games. Kilkenny will surely now take Scully’s place. There is a striking difference between good and great.
It is no coincidence that Mannion, McCaffrey and Cluxton have returned. Dublin had regressed badly in the last two years. They had become schmucks like everyone else, playing safe, banal football. The low point of this deterioration was their abject capitulation to Derry in Celtic Park in the league. Having been six points up (0-8 to 0-2) halfway through, they lost to us by a point. As Cahair O’Kane of the Irish News wrote the following day,”If a team is what it repeatedly does, then Dublin are actually the team we saw in the second half in Celtic Park.” That second half in March was almost identical to their second half display against Mayo in the 2021 semi-final. Backwards, sideways, risk free nothingness. No wonder Gilroy got the call when the previous water boy stepped down for personal reasons.
In the first half on sunday, the Dubs stood off, allowed Mayo to find Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy at will, attacked slowly and – aside from Costello and the extraordinary Basquel – refused to take their men on. Half hearted rubbish.
But in the second half, they suddenly emerged from their three year hibernation. A blitzkrieg was activated. They went, to use a favourite phrase of Gilroy’s “balls out.” They hunted down every ball like hyenas after a wildebeest. The Mayo players were sacked repeatedly. The Dubs swarmed all over them like Tyrone’s 2003 anarchists, then moved the ball forward at speed, their electrifying forwards taking their men on full throttle. It was shocking for Mayo but wonderful to watch. Scary even. Within six or seven minutes the game was over.
Before the weekend, we were talking about Darragh Canavan’s forward play. Dublin have five forwards who can do everything he does, but all of them are bigger, stronger and quicker than Darragj. Paul Mannion, all 6’2″ of him, with his zero to 60 in 3threeseconds from a standing start, electrifying pace, precision, kicking beautifully of either foot. Costello, O’Callaghan, Kilkenny, Basquel, all two footed flying machines who can win their own ball. All expert finishers. All unselfish team players. Basquel’s second goal, with young Callinan hunted down and dispossessed on his own endline, Costello surging towards goal, then diving and fistpassing to Basquel for the easy finish, was a perfect summation of Dublin’s renewal.
In the first half, the Dublin full backs had been left exposed because Dublin were standing off their men outfield, giving Mayo time to relax into the game. Giving them time to play. In the second half, it was back to the future – the sort of shock and awe football we last saw several years ago. The sort of football that terrifies opponents. Gives them no time to think. No time to settle. It was dazzling. Thrilling. Frightening. Watching them, I thought of my own inadequacies as a footballer. And it does not often occur to me that I have inadequacies.
The return of Cluxton has had an enormous impact. Relaxed as big Pat Jennings, he sets the highest standards of excellence. His presence is a signal to the team that everything is going to be okay. He reminds me of the great Bill Russell’s line, “My ego, demands for me, the success of my team.” Russell won 10 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics and is widely regarded as the greatest captain in history. Cluxton is on his way to equalling that record and nothing can stop him.