The superlatives surrounding this current Dublin team seem neverending such is the guile and grace with which they play Gaelic football.
Stephen Cluxton is quite simply, the greatest goalkeeper Gaelic Games have ever seen while Jack McCaffrey’s style of play shares characteristics with a thoroughbred stallion racing home at Aintree for differing reasons.
Michael Darragh MacAuley and Brian Fenton have proven to be a formidable midfield partnership that complements each other’s traits perfectly (despite their struggles on Sunday).
Up front, Dublin’s forward line would strike fear into the most intimidating of defenders with Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan devastating inside while Dean Rock’s unflinching performance on Sunday was a joy to behold.
However, despite all their prowess and the nation’s admiration for what is a truly remarkable footballing side, the topic of Brian Howard often falls by the wayside and it is strange because having watched Dublin in the flesh five times this season it’s clear that he is now the man that makes it all tick.
At just 21-years-old the All-Star midfielder is devastating in all corners of the field for Dublin. He can kick scores, he’s strong in the tackle, lethal in the air and calmness personified in possession.
Howard drifts in and out of games, quite often keeping base on the left-wing before retreating into a quarterback/sweeper position as Dublin advance upfield. He is a reliable and often used target for Cluxton’s restarts which has proven to be the launchpad for numerous Dublin scores.
Alongside Rock, Howard was the pick of the Dublin forwards in Sunday’s epic drawn encounter with Kerry. He didn’t get on the scoreboard himself but played a direct role in 1-5 of Dublin’s 1-9 in the first half.
The Raheny man is our focus in this week’s edition of the All-Ireland Deep-Dive.
His calmness in possession was evident from early on. With Kerry beginning to gain a foothold in the game Jack McCaffrey won a free-kick coming out of defence.
The wing-back looked for options ahead but Howard signalled for a short pass backwards. While it may not look like much, Howard slowed the play down, retained possession and allowed his teammates to advance further upfield.
In total, he gathered possession three teams during the entirety of the play as Dublin eased into the opposition’s half of the field.
Jack McCaffrey is deservedly getting all the plaudits following an All-Ireland performance for the ages. However, without Howard, his goal never would have happened.
Kerry edged in front following a foul on David Clifford that saw Jonny Cooper receive the first of two yellow cards. From the kick-out, Kerry pressed hard and Cluxton looked devoid of options. Howard was frantically waving for the ball to be sent his way at this stage.
Cluxton obliged and sent one down on top of Howard and Gavin White who are at a total mismatch in this area of the field. It resulted in a simply outstanding catch by the Raheny man and seconds later, McCaffrey is firing into the net.
Outstanding work from Dublin as Jack McCaffrey sprints up the field and scores a goal! pic.twitter.com/xuzUZ4U3Sr
— The GAA (@officialgaa) September 1, 2019
Moments later, Howard was back covering his own full-back line. Kerry took a pot shot which Cluxton batted away only for Howard to anticipate the breaking ball and secure possession before setting up another Dublin attack.
Later in the half, Howard showed all his tenacity as well as his skilful kick-passing to help move Dublin five points clear.
By this stage, Kerry are struggling to get out of their own half. Ryan aimed his kick-out towards the on-rushing White but given the nature of Dublin’s press, Howard was onto the Dr Crokes man in a flash, putting enough pressure on to force the mistake.
He didn’t gain primary possession but peeled off McCarthy to become the first receiver. As soon as he gathered the ball he angles a beautifully weighted pass into O’Callaghan who drew the foul that left Rock with the easiest of scores.
Moments later, the Raheny youngster displayed all the bravery that cannot be coached by managers.
At this point, he has filtered back into his own defence, once again. David Moran battled hard to win himself a free and spotted Paul Geaney running from deep. Moran, one of the game’s best passers, looked to find the Dingle man but the pass was cut out by Howard who identified the space, attacked the ball and shipped a heavy foul from Geaney for his troubles.
It was a perfect first half for Howard who has been excellent all season for Dublin. He gave away possession once in the second half and took a poor shot in injury time before being replaced but given the intensity of the game, the first proper intense championship game he’s been involved in, he could be forgiven for this.
It’s easy to say that he needs man-marked but his style of play is so unique it is easy to overlook the threat posed by the deep-lying quarterback come sweeper who is so effective from restarts and in the attack.
That’s not a package you come across every day.