Dublin face dilemma to replace the unflappable Rory O'Carroll

Rory O'Carroll
Rory O'Carroll

DOWN every avenue of Dublin’s parade to the higher ground of gaelic football the fingerprints of Rory O’Carroll are to be found.

Swallowing great draughts of possession, tranquilising the biggest names, sultan of the square, the unflappable proprietor of the most critical isthmus of land.

As a screensaver of the Sky Blues’ golden age, O’Carroll, ever alert, a watchful hawk, shifting the crosshairs of his attention back and forth from ball to lurking full-forward, would be as apt as any.  

Understated, cerebral, unflappable, he’s a throwback with a modern twist.

Content to restrict his own game – he carried the ball just five times from open play in the All-Ireland final – to the art of suffocation and denial, to examining an opponent’s appetite for claustrophobic conflict.

O’Carroll has not scored a solitary point in 34 championship appearances, yet the 26-year-old is as valuable as any of his celebrated team-mates.

Powerful in the air, unbending in physical combat, happy to mark from the front, comfortable that his A-grade game-reading and fast-twitch muscles will serve as a Get Out of Jail card, the two-time Allstar is Mister Ronseal.

Through three All-Ireland-winning campaigns, he has done exactly what it says on the tin.

Jim Gavin is a man immune to panic, his refrigerated veins further iced by his military and aeronautic training.

But if ever the commander-in-chief’s heart was to fibrillate it would surely have been when O’Carroll informed him of his intentions to take a year long sabbatical to spend 2016 in New Zealand.

The irony is that a player so happy to hold his position, to anchor the Dublin defence, is so full of wanderlust in his civilian life. A previous stint in Paris sidelined him for the 2011 NFL.

Now, as Gavin seeks to become the first Dublin boss to defend the All-Ireland since the year after the foundation of the state he finds the Land of the Long Cloud blocking out the light.

Of all the gemstones – Connolly, Brogan, Flynn, McCaffrey, Kilkenny, McMahon, Macauley, O’Sullivan, Fenton – in Dublin’s glittering array of outfield talent, O’Carroll is the irreplaceable diamond.

He is certainly not the lead vocalist during the summer’s stadium tour; his value is in the mastery of a very specific, non-glamorous craft.

Quite simply, there is no ready-made like-for-like proxy, no firefighter as adept at turning on the hoses at the first hint of smoke.

Anybody who doubts one man can be so influential, that fails to comprehend how a single absence can trigger a damburst of scores, a flood of opportunity for opponents, need only consult Manuel Pellegrini.

The manager of the richest sporting institution on earth has spent almost €100m specifically to paper over the cracks that fracture Manchester City’s fortress walls the instant Vincent Kompany’s body fails to no avail.

Those observing City’s rapid descent into defensive chaos when Kompany – tasked with pretty much an identical job to O’Carroll – will understand how the loss of such an authoritative leader can trigger anarchy.

Kompany has played in eight of 21 league games this season: City have conceded just one goal while the Belgian has been on the pitch, 22 when he was not. It is a statistic to send a shiver down the spine of Dublin fans.

Dublin, like their fellow Sky Blues, have enviable resources, a vast, richly-talented squad.

But City have discovered that the Zen-like defensive calm which is Kompany’s gift to his employers is maddeningly elusive.

The Manchester mammoths invested E54m in Eliaquim Mangala, a further €44m in Nicolas Otamendi; yet the moment Kompany falls it is as if Pellegrini has ceded operational command to an officer of the Keystone Constabulary.

Perhaps Dublin’s transition post-O’Carroll will be as seamless as Kilkenny’s after their magnificent pit-bull JJ Delaney called time 12 months ago.

But Rory’s six unbroken summers in football’s most specialist role, make the coming months a step into the unknown.

The safecrackers of Kerry and Mayo may feel the combination to the Dublin vaults is all at once less problematic to crack.

A study of the Leinster leviathans’ difficulties identifying an ideal Number Three tenant prior to O’Carroll taking the lease in 2010 is illustrative.

Midfielder Ross McConnell and wing-back/utility forward Barry Cahill were among the ill-fitting square pegs forced into the round hole.  

For the infamous 2009 slaughter by Kerry, Denis Bastick – the inestimable midfield warhorse and leader - was the startled earwig at full-back.

The emergence of O’Carroll marked a critical moment in Dublin’s development. Who can now replace him?

Philly McMahon’s yearning, like a horse on the early-morning gallops, to advance into the open spaces, to attack, make him – despite his brilliant muzzling of Aidan O’Shea and Colm Cooper – a poor fit at full-back.

To tether such a free spirit would be to diminish him:  McMahon scored 1-6 last summer; O’Carroll might not have crossed the half-way line.  

Of the established players, Johnny Cooper’s DNA most closely compares to that of a full-back; Cian O’Sulllivan could be a latter-day Seamus Moynihan, but that will leave Gavin needing to post a situation vacant advert for a sweeper.

There is an abundance of young talent: David Byrne, in particular, excelled at underage level; Kevin O’Brien captained Gavin’s All-Ireland winning U-21s in 2010 only for his senior progress to be halted by a 2014 cruciate injury. 

Many will be fitted for the Number Three shirt, but to solve the Kompany conundrum they will need to be more than a rock.

They will be required to step into the shoes of a giant, to become a ROC.