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Senior Football Final Preview – St. Vincent’s vs Ballymun Kickham’s

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You know the old saying – “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

There’s a sentiment prevailing in a lot of corners around Dublin, that the senior football championship final is Ballymun’s for the taking.

We’ve been here before. In 2014 Ballymun were massacring everything before them in the league and championship, to the point that many people said they were unbeatable. Then they were beaten, fairly comprehensively in the end, in the quarters by Plunkett’s.

At the start of the year I could understand their lower odds than Vincent’s to win the championship outright. Vincents’ three time county championship winning manager, Tommy Conroy, had gone and Brian Mullins had taken over. A change of manager always heralds a journey into uncertainty.

Ballymun, on the other hand, after looking very underwhelming in both their 2014 and 215 championship defeats, under their new manager last year, Paddy Carr, had shown that they were in solid hands.

Cutting the mustard, a man down with for half the game, in last year’s semi against Vincent’s, was all the evidence we needed to tell us that Carr had got the right mix to mould Ballymun’s massive raw ability into a solid unit. For the first time in recent years, they looked like they had the ability to “pick and poke” their way through opposition defences if over-running them didn’t work out for them.

Their raw ability is immense. Four regular Dublin starters – Philly McMahon, John Small, James McCarthy and Dean Rock. Two more who probably and possibly will be in the coming years – Evan Comerford and Paddy Small.

Rock, just one of four regular Dublin starters

They have possibly the best man-marker in Dublin who doesn’t see time in Croke Park every year in Eoin Dolan. Former Mayo panelist, James Burke, brings a balance and method to the half back line. Aaron Elliot and Davey Byrne bring immense pace to the middle area, with former Dublin starter, Alan Hubbard to pull the strings if he roves. 2017 Dublin panelist Jason Whelan’s pace, size and cutting runs combined with Kevin Leahy’s steady head in the half forward line.

You could name them all. A host of nineteen year old All-Ireland Féile winners, barely getting a look in. And they look like they haven’t even missed the 2016 championship’s highest scorer/fouled for scored frees of the championship, from the quarters on, Ted Furman.

All things weighed up, at the start of the season, I could see a logic in Ballymun being shorter odds. But now? After Vincent’s thoroughly dismantled a “park the bus” Sylvester’s in the quarters, and upped a gear when the need arose in the second round against Na Fianna. I’m quite confident that that Na Fianna side is significantly better than most people will realise until next year’s group stages.

Vins were good value against Na Fianna

And we can say what we want about Judes’ red cards in the last round – the fact of the matter is that Vincent’s won. Both red cards, essentially, came about as a result of efforts to curb Vincents’ two Dublin seniors, Diarmuid Connolly and Shane Carthy.

It’s their fifth final in a row. They’ve won three of the last four championships. They’ve beaten Ballymun on the last three occasions they’ve played in championship. Yet they’re the underdogs! Not for the first time this year, I have to ask the question – am I missing something?

Ask me does 50/50 make sense? Absolutely! But 11/8! I just can’t quantify that.

For all of that, even if I don’t entirely agree with it, I can, maybe, see where they’re coming from.

The Age Factor

You have to assume that one element of Ballymun’s favourites’ tag with the bookies is that while they now have their All-Ireland Féile winning side hitting their second year of adulthood, and the likes of Paddy Small bursting on the scene, Vincents’ extra year on the clock is presumably considered to reduce their stock.

Five significant players are a year further into their thirties this year. Former Dublin footballers Ger Brennan and Tomás Quinn are 33 and 35 respectively, former Dublin hurler Rúairí Trainor is in and around 35, former Mayo footballer, Enda Varley is 31, and current Sligo centre back, Brendan Egan is 35 or 36.

For the first time, fully fit (presumably),Trainor wasn’t started in the semis and Quinn’s form has possibly yet to hit the same heights as last year.

Trainor came on against Jude’s

The Athletic Factor and Midfield

There’s no doubting the fact that, collectively, Ballymun are more athletic than Vincent’s. From number 2 to 15 they’re athletic animals.

When you look around the Vincent’s side, there are perhaps, only nine who you could expect to match them yard for yard – Mick Concarr (2) ,  Craig Wilson (4),  Cameron Diamond (5),  Nathan Mullins (8),  Lorcan Galvin (9), Gavin Burke (10),  Shane Carthy (9/11), Cormac Diamond  (12) and Diarmuid Connolly (11/14).

There are, however, two things to bear in mind.

Firstly, the price of this athletic superiority for Ballymun is that they don’t have a towering midfielder. They’ve been going with James McCarthy and Aaron Elliot, previously Davey Byrne and Elliot.

As our analysis article pointed out, before the sending off in the semi-final, Croke’s Pat Duggan had won three kick-outs for three that were sent long to midfield.

Ballymun had the same problem last year. From eighteen long kick-outs into the melting pot when the sides met in the semi-final, Vincent’s won thirteen and lost five. You can’t win a game without the ball, and if this patterns continues, it could more than compensate for this athletic difference.

That Mun were a man down for half the game, had little bearing on the results of the ling kick-outs.

Vincent’s rise highest on the kick-out

And tap it down for “the break”

The Midfield Selection

This, of course, raises the million-dollar question – who will play at midfield for Vincent’s. Of course, both sides will try to go short, quickly with their kick-outs, but equally, both will try to choke off the opposition’s. If a good number go long, who plays midfield for Vincent’s will be key.

They have five marquee midfielders – the 2013/14 towering pairing of Dáithí Murphy and Éamonn Fennell are both back in action recently. Shane Carthy who dominated from the position last year could play there or half forward. And then there’s the current pairing of Nathan Mullins and new kid on the block, Lorcan Galvin, the partnership that played midfield in the semis and quarters.

I’d suggested that one of Fennell or Murphy would have been the ticket against Judes’ towering midfielding pairing of Séaumus Ryan and Colm Murphy. However, they stuck with the quarter final pairing of Galvin and Mullins, Mullins having moved to the middle from wing back since the All-Ireland semi-final against Slaughtneil.

Undoubtedly, this pairing was key against Jude’s with Mullins being Vincents’ key performer on the night, indeed, winning his fair share of kick-outs against the larger Murphy and Ryan. And Galvin will still be the tallest midfielder out there, and with a significantly superior engine to Murphy or Fennell.

For all of that, I still can’t help but feel that a midfielder to try to dominate this kick-out, as they did last year, could be key. If close to half of the kick-outs go long, and Ballymun come away with close to a fifty percent of that, figures start lending themselves to the challengers being significantly more likely to win.

The midfield selections and battles will be key

The Stats

With both having avoided the stand-out top seven opposition until the semis for two years running, and there having been red cards in their respective semis as well as last year’s clash between the two sides, untainted stats are somewhat thin on the ground.

It would be tempting to conclude based on their respective Zonal Defence Analysis figures from the semi-finals (up to the red cards) that Ballymun can break down zonal defences, with their 58% attack to score ratio against Croke’s, and that Vincent’s can’t, having had merely a 12% ratio against Jude’s.

Of course, we know that that would be too facile a reading of things. Ballymun’s first twenty minutes against Croke’s, not to mention their 1-17 against Brigids’ organised defence, was enough to re-confirm that they no longer rely on over-running oppositions. They can “pick and poke” past the best of them.

Mun cut open Brigids’ organised defence

Vincent’s figures against Jude’s should be taken with a relative pinch of salt. Jude’s probably have the second best zonal defence in the country, after Slaughtneil, and there was still evidence that Vincent’s were, maybe, about to up a gear, even before the red cards.

The pure fact of the matter is that Zonal Kick-out Analysis illustrates that Vincent’s are still the only club in Dublin who, even against top sides, consistently, score more off short kick-outs to the full back played more than 9.5 seconds after the ball has gone dead, than they concede on the first turnover after the kick-out.

This is the purest acid test of a side’s raw ability to break down an opposition, as they’re set up with thirteen/fourteen behind the ball. They scored four from seven such kicks against Ballymun last year.  Again, having a man extra is of no significance in this regard as Mun had as men behind the ball as they’d have had with a full compliment. It was their capacity to counter-attack was compromised.

Equally, Vincent’s scored five points into sixteen full-on zonal defences, a 31 percent attack to score ratio, similar to Ballymun’s 29%, four from fourteen.

Significantly, Ballymun’s figures were more impressive on other types of attacks. Their issue, a man down for thirty minutes, was obviously, that they created less of them.

Vincent’s create high numbers of man-on-man attacks

The question is, will they create as many highly ideal attacking situations as Vincent’s?

That’s where Vincents’ trump card potentially lies. Typically, they create more ideal attacking circumstances than every opposition, at least in Dublin and Leinster.

Vincents’ Key Asset

I work in performance analysis. I create actuarial systems to evaluate and prove different theories of the game. I understand that the bookies apply complex and logical formulae to assess odds. When they don’t add up to me, I tend to look deeper. Sometimes, they still don’t add up to me, like when Castleknock were 3/1 to beat Plunkett’s and Roscommon were 3/1 to beat Mayo this year!

There’s one thing that I know bookies don’t have the capacity to evaluate – ability to create or deprive ideal attacking circumstances in “Phase 2” of attacking/defending.

Vincent’s are the masters of this. The manner in which they will re-shape and re-mould in “Phase 2” is second to none in Dublin.

Vincent’s could be caught on the counter

But get back with maximum efficiency

And turn the ball over with a sweeper still at the back

This typically deprives oppositions from creating ideal attacking circumstances. I’ve yet to analyse a Vincent’s game in Dublin where they haven’t created higher proportions of man-on-man or over-lapping attacks relative to their opposition. It’s why they’re always there or there abouts, even when they appear to be playing badly.

On top of that, when the opposition are anything less than methodically efficient, defending “Phase 2”, they’ll pounce ruthlessly.

On top of a massive broad footballing intelligence across the board, Tomás Quinn, Rúairí Trainor, Enda Varley, Nathan Mullins, Brendan Egan, Jarlath Curley and, of course, Ger Brennan, are seven of the wiliest foxes you’ll find in football.

With the boys up front creating chances out of nothing and disturbing the foundations of opposition counter-attacks at “Phase 2”, they complement the killer runs of Connolly, Carthy and Burke brilliantly, not to mention Cormac Diamond who actually had Vincents’ best possession/score figures at the point he was taken off in the semi.

Quinn is the wiliest of foxes

And with Mullins controlling the centre, and Brennan and Egan controlling the the half back line, they’ll create optimum conditions to make the most of their strengths.

For all of that, there are two elements regarding Vincents’ attacks which we can’t get past. The first is obvious, the second less so.

Vincents’ Attack – Connolly, Small and McMahon

When the sides met last year, Vincent’s won by twelve to eleven. Three Vincent’s points came directly off winning long kick-outs. Five more came from magic from Connolly. With only one of these over-lapping, that means they scored five from other sources.

When Slaughtneil’s Chrissy McCaigue tied Connolly up, they were kept to ten points. When Judes’ Paul Cunningham and Mark Sweeney tied him up, before the red card, they scored 1-4 in 37 minutes.

The suggestion that they’re a one man team is absurd, but there’s no doubting that he’s a once in a generation talent. Keep him quiet and it’s a major thorn in Vincents’ side.

Take out his magic points last year, and you have to assume Ballymun would probably have won. John Small marked him in the first half, and for some of the second, but for three of the five points he created from nothing, Small wasn’t directly facing him.

Now, there are question marks over both Small’s and Connolly’s fitness. Both left the field injured in their most recent games, but my suspicion is that both are being over-hyped. I suspect they’ll both play a full part.

There are doubts over Connolly’s and Small’s fitness

And while Small is one of the best man-markers in the country, Ballymun have one that’s better.

If you asked me who have been the three most competent attacking players in the country of the last ten years, the three names would be Colm Cooper, Aidan O’Shea and Diarmuid Connolly.

McMahon has successfully marked the first two out of games in recent years. There seems an obvious conclusion to me!

Yes, McMahon has played as play-maker-cum sweeper this year, and there’s no doubting his ability in this role. But he played corner back last year. It adds up to me that with the quality they have, they could sacrifice the most proven man-marker in the country to keep tabs on the most complete forward in the country.

Not alone that, as Chrissy McCaigue’s marauding runs illustrated, McMahon’s runs up-filed would give Connolly a thing or two to think about too.

McMahon has been the play-maker this year

Conclusion

There are so many “ifs and maybes”, a lot is still up in the air. The relative fitness of Connolly and Small is obviously huge.

In fact, Paddy Small looks the most likely to be affected. He looked like he’d properly pulled something late on against Croke’s. As things stand, he’s the front runner for “Player of the Year” with 1-11 from play in the semi and quarter-finals. With Ted Furman already out, that would be a huge loss – Mun’s two marquee front men out.

What midfield will Vincent’s play and will they dominate the long kick-out like last year, and score points off them like last year?

Will Eoin Dolan hold Enda Varley as effectively as last year at full forward?

Dolan was a match for Varley last year

Will whoever marks Connolly keep him under some sort of wraps, assuming he’s fit to play?

You have to ask it – will all fifteen Ballymun players keep their heads in the heat of battle? They’ve had two red cards and one black in  their last five championship games, all in the first half.

With so much up in the air, for me, it’s impossible to call.

Despite Mun’s superior fitness, the figures would suggest they’re not more likely to create a higher number of ideal chances, and only slightly more likely to score from them, all things being equal.

Like I say, reduce the impact of Connolly or Vincents’ dominance off the long kick-out, and you probably have to conclude that Ballymun, with youth on their side, look a bit stronger, even if they’re without Paddy Small in the full forward line.

Small points against Brigid’s

The furthest limb I’d go out in is to say that if fifty percent or more of the kick-outs go long, and Ballymun win fifty percent of those, I’d fancy them. If they can keep Connolly to two/three points scored/created from thin air, and hold Varley like last year, I’d fancy them. But these are massive “ifs”.

In the end of the day, I can’t look past the fact that this is Vincent’s. They know how to grind out victories. And if it’s tight, late on, like last year, you have to assume that Vincent’s will have swagger about them. Inside and outside Dublin, they’ve been involved in more tight battles than Ballymun in recent years.

In fact, last year’s clash was the first time Mun played a championship game that was in the melting pot entering the final minutes in four championship seasons. Vincent’s have had four, six at a stretch, and only lost one. That’s just inside Dublin.

They’ve beaten Ballymun three times out of three in four years

In a tight game, late on, these things stand to you. If it’s level or Vincent’s are a point up in the last ten, I’d fancy them.

All things weighed up, you really wouldn’t want to have call it. Forced to…if you had to?

Experience. Been to the well and back so many times! You’d still have to shout Vincent’s.

At 11/8. My money is long down.

By Stephen O’Meara

@somearagaa

@grassrootsgaa