Dr Ed Coughlan: Dublin commitment to succession planning gets deserved success

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Con O’Callaghan has been groomed for years in a structure of development that puts skills progression first, says Dr   Ed Coughlan.

T HE end of every season sparks the mandatory postmortem to determine the quality on display throughout the year.

The health of the sport is questioned in relation to its sustainability going forward. The doomsday parade will likely paint a dark picture bemoaning the dominance of Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, and the Chicago Bulls of yesteryear, or the Cork Ladies football team, the All Blacks, Kerry, and Kilkenny of more recent times — there is always someone to blame for being better than everyone else.

Make no mistake about it, Dublin are good for the game of Gaelic football. Ironically, and in equal measure, potentially so are Mayo.

Dublin provides a template for continual improvement and are the epitome of the saying: what got you here will not get you there. And therein lies the pain for Mayo; last Sunday they were good enough to beat the Dublin of 2016, just not the Dublin of 2017.

Such a painful realisation will set in motion the reflection that will lead to the planning for next year. But such planning has to be coupled with a patience and commitment to adding value one year at a time.

Should Mayo decide to push harder than previous years and attempt to make up this 12-month deficit in a single year, they run the risk of over-cooking it and falling even further behind.

The process that goes into becoming a dominant force in any sport starts with the care and attention given to the youth of the sport and finishes with the appreciation and respect shown to the coaches who deliver on such a programme for the future.

Almost to the week, it is 10 years since a sport science research project commenced with the Dublin development squads. The topic they were interested in and prepared to sacrifice many training sessions, was to determine the impact of games-based practice sessions compared to drills-based practice sessions on improving the frequency of use of the non-dominant hand-pass in match play. A decade ago!

Not surprisingly, many of those players and coaches are still involved with Dublin GAA in some capacity today, with several on the field of play last Sunday. There is no money at play here, no mass sponsorship, no state-of-the-art facilities, just a commitment to the future and a show of genuine appreciation from the county board for their voluntary efforts.

Compare that to the horror stories around the country of coaches committing years to development squads only to be passed over without consideration for involvement at the minor level by county board executives. Or the appointment of former great players who happened to win something in their past, with little or no coaching experience being drafted into a managerial position ahead of a seasoned coach and student of the game.

Is it any wonder some counties struggle to get people to commit to developing youth when the lack of respect and appreciation shown to them for their efforts is so soul-destroying? Let’s not fool ourselves also into thinking the players do not pick up on this injustice, year in, year out.

It took Kieran Kingston of Cork hurling to connect the dots between senior, under-21, and minor before Cork football thought it might be a good idea in this new regime. Something Dublin football has been doing for years.

It’s a wonder why the same thinking is not pervading Dublin hurling. Maybe now is the time they’ll promote from within.

So rather than bemoan the success of Dublin, we should celebrate their commitment to a plan. A plan that enables Jim Gavin to be short-sighted in thinking of only the next game ahead, because all the long-sighted work has been done before the players reach senior level. Con O’Callaghan wasn’t plucked from thin air; he has been groomed for years in a structure of development that commits to skills progression over physical development. Don’t be surprised to see players who made appearances in last year’s O’Byrne Cup and national league, only to fade away into the background come championship, increasing their exposure in next year’s second and third tier campaigns.

Commentators will casually assume that Dublin cannot have the same hunger to win as their opposition because they have won it all before. But if each game is taken as a single entity, to be prepared for without the distraction of the importance of the result, then the same thinking begins to permeate into each play within a game.

The sense of inevitability that permeated through last Sunday’s final comes from the sense of calm that Dublin have developed to be able to evaluate the risk-reward trade-off throughout the game. No doubt Dublin made errors last Sunday, as did Mayo, but predictably those errors happened further away from their own goal and at less critical times. Panic and the tendency to force a play are directly linked to a nagging realisation that the work is not yet done to finish the job.

Mind you, Dublin are acutely aware that they’re still 10 titles behind Kerry in the all-time honours list, as well as the fact that Kerry have twice achieved a four-in-a-row in their history. But awareness of such facts does not mean it will become their goal, such is their commitment to their step-by-step approach.

The silly debates about the luck Dublin have enjoyed or conversely, the lack of it from a Mayo perspective; completely disrespects the process that underpins consistent excellence in sport. A culture of winning comes from a culture of excellence. Accountability from players and coaches and a willingness to take responsibility for failings are critical elements to building a robust unit of freethinking individuals capable of engaging in a team ethic beyond their own self-importance.

There is little doubt that Mayo have made significant improvements under the management of Stephen Rochford, but just because they have made such developments this year, or even last year, does not outweigh the years they lag behind in similar improvements that Dublin have nurtured. If Stephen Rochford took the Mayo job thinking it was just a matter of fine-tuning and tweaking what was already there, he would certainly realise now the error in such thinking. The strength and depth coming from his bench is a case in point. How Patrick Durcan is only three years involved in a senior set-up is an indictment of the myopia that has cost Mayo in the past.

Where are the recent All-Ireland winning minor and U21 Mayo managers and coaches in the current senior set-up? Should Stephen Rochford stay on as Mayo manager, he has to be the one to finally connect the dots back along the Mayo production line.

Otherwise, the county risks overlooking and under developing playing and coaching talent that may be right beneath their noses.

Mayo are good for the game for the drama and emotion they evoke from all corners of the world. For sure, an All-Ireland is getting closer, but not before more layers of joined-up thinking are put in place. If Stephen Rochford can emerge from his post-season analysis committed to finding the future Andy Morans, Keith Higgins, and David Clarkes to join the current Cillian O’Connors, Lee Keegans and Jason Dohertys, then this year will one day be seen as a success for how it kick-started a period of dominance that Dublin currently enjoy.

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