MORE SHOCKING than any profanities from a certain Limerick double act anxious to preserve their 15 months of fame at Croke Park on Saturday night were the efforts of a Dublin midfield that didn’t seem as desperate to maintain their own reputation.
Dublin fans will not lose too much sleep about the result and there are sound reasons not to toss and turn at night. The All-Ireland champions have packed an average of a training session per day into the month of January, were short the last two footballers of the year and Barry Cahill, and generally didn’t seem as bothered as Kerry about the outcome.
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They are also not the only side expecting big things this September who were underwhelming at the weekend; the highlights from the Morgan Athletic Grounds suggest that Conor Counihan may slumber even less comfortably this week. However, Pat Gilroy is shrewd enough to be more than slightly uneasy about how the first five weeks of 2012 have unfolded, and particularly the body language of some key men.
Take, for instance, the contrast between the approach of Kevin McManamon and Michael Daragh MacAuley to the dark months that show no sign yet of passing. McManamon has already made it clear that he is determined that his post-All-Ireland-winning-goal career graph should take the opposite route to, say, Seamus Darby. He gives the air of a man just as desperate to nail down a starting place as he was long before he stepped inside Declan O’Sullivan and into football immortality.
MacAuley, on the other hand, an All Star last year, was part of a Dublin midfield that was cleaned out by Seamus Scanlon, Bryan Sheehan and Anthony Maher to the point of embarrassment, particularly in the pivotal third quarter of the game. MacAuley’s game is based on a tirelessly hard-working approach and it was non-existent on Saturday; he was replaced again, as he was in the Dubs’ final O’Byrne Cup in Newbridge, when he was benched long before half-time after earning an early yellow card.
There is no crime in enjoying a first All-Ireland in 16 years but the evidence remains, nonetheless, that not every Dublin player took the grounded attitude of, say, Stephen Cluxton, who told his employers before the All-Ireland decider that he would, as usual, be teaching science that Monday, win or lose.
There may be many months left for MacAuley and others in the same boat to turn things around, but it must already be troubling for Gilroy that any members of his squad should lack a sense of mission about the season ahead, even at this early stage.
The players that are the best on the park in February, that show that sense of purpose from the beginning of the season, are often the ones who stand out in summer as well; by that measure, for example, Darran O’Sullivan might not be the worst bet you could ever make if you fancied predicting a footballer of the year.
Dublin might hope the confidence that winning Sam Maguire will bring to what remains a young side will see them through when the heat is applied from August onwards. However, it must be borne in mind that they barely got over the line last year in a season when they had started the league like a team possessed, beating Cork and Kerry within the first three rounds.
Perhaps even more troubling for Gilroy is that a certain lack of discipline has not been eradicated by the addition of a pack of celtic crosses. Eamonn Fennell joined the action on Saturday with a brief, one assumes, to get stuck into kick-outs and earn possession in the middle; instead, he got stuck into a lazy late tackle and earned nothing more than a needless suspension.
It followed a similarly petty act by Diarmuid Connolly in Newbridge for which he was fortunate to escape censure. That lack of discipline is still one of Dublin’s great problems and Gilroy knows that if it could be solved, he would take a giant leap towards more All-Ireland titles. Fennell’s is the latest in a long line of needless sending offs while it should also be noted that before McManamon, Cluxton and Kevin Nolan made their heroic contributions in September, an array of Dublin defenders had started to panic and concede needless frees.
At the other end, Connolly remains another riddle that Gilroy would love to find the key to. Dublin may have won an All-Ireland but that doesn’t mean that an inability to rely on Connolly and a couple of others, such as Eoghan O’Gara for example, to keep their heads at the moments of the most intense pressure will not cost Dublin future Sam Maguires.
Connolly’s talent is taken as a given but we have only seen it at the highest level in that quarter-final against Tyrone, and he must show it on days when Dublin are not so obviously superior already if he is to convince the doubters.
It is improvements such as this that Gilroy will seek, because he will know that improvement is necessary if Dublin are to stand a chance of retaining their title; in the meantime he must figure out how to engender the same relish in these early games that other teams, starting with Mayo in round two, will possess when they see blue jerseys in front of them.
Kerry’s more optimistic supporters would argue that what we saw on Saturday night was what would have happened if Killian Young and Declan O’Sullivan and not been slack in possession in the lead up to McManamon’s game-changer last year; that if they had instead booted it down to the Canal end, Kerry’s margin of victory in that game would have been similar in that match to what it was on Saturday night.
Dublin don’t care about what might have happened in a parallel football universe, and it is too soon to talk about anything more than a victory party hangover, but they could do with a win in Castlebar on Saturday to get the show on the road to greater effect than the Rubberbandits.
However, if there is not enough evidence to keep them awake in the small hours just yet, perhaps the thing they should worry about is that for the first time in months, many a south-western football fanatic will have been sleeping like a baby since Saturday night.
Fresh Harte buoys Tyrone
OWEN MULLIGAN’S beautiful delivery for Tyrone’s second goal on Saturday may have provided us with the moment of the season so far, but even more encouraging for Mickey Harte was the performance of several of the Red Hands’ youngsters in a game they won off about 40% possession.
Chief among them was Peter Harte, scorer of that second goal. Up until now, we didn’t really fully subscribe to the hype about the youngster, but his performance against Kildare from centre-back should have been good enough to win him the man-of-the-match award, and suggests that by putting him there instead of at wing-forward, Tyrone may have chanced upon another unorthodox positioning that works.
Tyrone may still have a long way to go – it must be considered that Kildare butchered three goal chances that others would not – but the certain knowledge that he has a leader to go with Mugsy, Stephen O’Neill and Sean Cavanagh will offer great encouragement to the older Harte.