Updated: Apr 9, 2019
As ravenous Mayo fans drink themselves to delirium following their thoroughly deserved NFL victory over Kerry, Dublin fans are left to ponder where their team went wrong and if their team still has what it takes to win five All Ireland titles in a row.
So used are we to the dulcet tones of Stephen Cluxton’s magnanimous victory speeches in Croke Park, commiserating Mayo for a fine sporting game during which ONLY 7 players had to be carted off to hospital for broken legs, torn hamstrings, concussion and a GPS removal, that we almost had to double take at the sight of Mayo Captain, Diarmuid O’Connor, accepting the National League trophy.
It was an unfamiliar and unexpected end to the 2019 National Football League that saw Dublin lose three times, an unprecedented statistic in the hitherto barely blemished record that marks Jim Gavin’s stewardship.
Some context here for those unfamiliar with Dublin’s record this decade – Dublin have contested every National League final since 2011, bar one (2012). That’s 7 of the last 8. And they won 5 of them, losing only to Cork (2010) and Kerry (2017), each by a single point. Think about that for a second and let it settle in…
Oh yeah, almost forgot.
They’ve won 6 All Ireland’s during that same period including 4-in-a-row and now hold the longest unbeaten record in League and Championship history.
That’s not a football team, that’s an empire.
Jim Gavin has conquered all before him with lethal calm. Veni, vidi, vici. Thankfully without wearing a toga.
So, a discombobulated Dub might ask of this year’s National League in 2019, what the f**k happened?
The media is giddy with commentary.
Have Dublin eaten so handsomely that they no longer have an appetite for winning? How many more times can they banquet with Sam without sating their once ravenous bellies?
Are their key players too old? Brogan, Flynn, Andrews, MacManimon, O’Gara, Cluxton, MDMA, McMahon and O’Sullivan are now on the wrong side of 30.
Old Bastard Time comes to us all and steals our vigour like a thief in the night. Are they Gods or men, these players? And if they be men, are they not also immune to the plague of decay?
Dublin are ever so slightly past their peak, suggested former Dublin manager, Pillar Caffrey, in an interview with Off the Ball’s Shane Stapleton. Kerry are the ones to watch.
I’m not so sure. Let’s break it down.
Jim Gavin played somewhere in the region of 38 players this National League and never once played his first team at the same time.
It’s worth remembering that in this year’s National League, they still outscored every other team and had the highest scoring difference. This while the defence was porous and the forward line never really got into gear.
Importantly, Jim Gavin chose to reward his charges with an overseas holiday in January while the rest of the chasing pack worked on game plans and conditioning.
And just why did he do that? There was a National League to be won, Goddammit.
Or was there?
Here’s what we know about Jim Gavin. The guy is no fool. And his goal this year is nothing less than a history-making 5-in-a-row All Ireland titles.
Did he want to win the National League? Sure, as long as Dublin did it in second gear without revealing their new season game plan (something he changes every year without fail). Yep, he’d take it. But change the training regimen to peak any earlier than the Super Eights? Not on your life.
Gavin saw the toll the National League took on his team in 2016 and 2017, when we just about fell over the line against Mayo.
Starting back in January is something that began last year – and look how that All Ireland final turned out. Peak fitness for Dublin is now a summer thing.
Gavin has won enough National Leagues, even if Dublin fans haven’t.
Unlike Kerry, who needed wins on the board against mature opposition to encourage their young team and bed down a game plan, or Mayo, rejuvenated under James Horan, who went seeking new blood, Gavin had nothing to gain by revealing his hand this early in the season.
He dismissed the mark emphatically – Dublin’s undoing at the hands of Conor McManus in the NFL opener against Monaghan - because it wasn’t relevant to the championship.
In Tralee, the Dubs put in a spirited but exhausted performance against a young Kerry team driven by the zeal of youth and ravenous with endeavour. They lost by a point despite going a man down for over 20 minutes and could even have stolen it in the end.
The one performance that threw us all was against the Red Hands at Croke Park. Tyrone were fitter, faster and more aggressive. They just wanted it, nay, needed it more.
Unprepared to countenance yet another defeat to Dublin, Mickey Harte, the wily old fox, surprised everyone by going long to the square where McShane and Donnelly dominated David Byrne and the Dublin back line. Tyrone, with an attractive, attacking game plan NOT designed to bore the opposition into a coma, was unforeseen. With Fitzsimmons and McMahon out, Gavin didn’t have the personnel to shore up his back line.
More worrying still was the sight of a subs bench that made no impact. Where was the MDMA-led cavalry arriving to wipe up in the last 10 minutes?
The unedifying sight of seasoned fixers like Kevin MacManimon and Cian O’Sullivan losing the ball in open play is not something we’re used to seeing (the Errol Flynn moustache didn't help either, Cian).
Irrepressible, systematic, professional and the less generous mechanical are words commonly associated with this team, but the one word we have never yet used is sloppy.
Dublin fans were left stupefied. Outfought and out-thought. We haven’t seen Jim Gavin lose a sideline battle since the Donegal watershed of 2014.
He said that the performance was not good enough but what else was he going to say? A manager as shrewd as Jim Gavin knows what signals he should and should not be putting out to his team. To have said otherwise, would be mere folly; he was never going to tell his squad that to lose without performing would be acceptable.
So what does it all mean?
Mayo are champions of the NFL, Dublin are not.
James Horan will be delighted, and good on him. But Gavin has a much bigger era-defining fish to fry.
Good teams don’t become bad teams over night. Certainly not, the greatest ever.
When the summer sun shines and the ground grows hard, the real football will begin. Make no mistake, Dublin will be ready.
Let’s remember that this time last year a young Galway team pushed Dublin all the way to a messy, windy draw in Salthill only to lose a subsequent, hard fought National League final by 4.
Come the championship, they said, we’ll be better. Come the championship, they said, we’ll have learnt. Come the championship, they said, we’ll have your number.
They lost the semi final by 9 points.
We’ve seen this before.
Derry, Cork, Roscommon, Galway and now Kerry have all pushed hard in recent years to establish themselves in the League, a confidence building measure to build momentum and prove to young men that they can mix it with the best.
But there’s a consequence to mistiming your run and going too early. Nobody need explain it to a
middle distance runner.
All flattered in the League to deceive in the Championship. Not one of them even got close.
It all seems quite familiar.
As for Tyrone? Let’s not forget that in the 2017 round robin leg at Croke Park, Dublin trailed Tyrone by 5 points only to equalise in the dying minutes of the game with a stunning Dean Rock free from 48m.
We came up here to win, said a disappointed Mickey Harte after the game.
He thought he had our number, full sure the arithmetic was correct. Wait until the summer, you could hear him thinking. We’re coming to get you.
Dublin annihilated Tyrone in the semi final that year by a humiliating 12 points.
Any would be pundit writing off Dublin in 2019 does so at their peril.
The bear has been poked, the beast has been bloodied.
Just wait for the response.