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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Dublin take centre stage ahead of Leinster Final

Dublin Manager Jim Gavin
Dublin Manager Jim Gavin

THE Boys in Blue are dismantling their Leinster opponents but how will they cope when the pressure is cranked up?

Within the next few days, the two best sides in Leinster will meet. And then, after a training game against their reserves, Dublin play Meath in the Leinster final. Once titans, the Royals are now little more than noisy neighbours.

While the memory of the five-goal “Royal Flush” in 2010 hasn’t faded, their ability to be a sustained power in the football world has.

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As a result, the Leinster Championship — which provided six different winners, Offaly, Kildare, Meath, Dublin, Laois and Westmeath between 1997 and 2004 — is now little more than a warm-up act for the Dubs.

Winners of seven of the last eight Leinsters, they have cruised into this final on the back of two 16-point victories over Westmeath and Kildare.

“It is impossible not to be impressed by what they have done,” says Barney Rock, an All-Ireland winner in 1983 and talisman for the side for over a decade.

“They were an exceptional force under Pat [Gilroy] but Jim [Gavin, the current manager] has changed their style. They’re so easy on the eye, now — yet effective too.”

They certainly are. Winners of the League, they have lit up this summer with an approach which is a million miles removed from the defensive emphasis Gilroy imposed.

“It’s a philosophy I’ve always had,” says Gavin. “When we coached the Under-21 team in 2003 we tried to get the team to play a similar brand of football. That didn’t change with the 21s since.

“Some years we had success with it. Some years we didn’t but it didn’t change our core philosophy of trying to play an expansive, open game. That’s the way I believe football should be played.”

As Dublin’s Under-21 manager, from 2008 until last year, it clearly worked. When he took over, they hadn’t won a game at that grade in three years and were ambushed by Kildare in that year’s Leinster Championship.

But he stuck to his principles and is now profiting from the style the younger generation of Dubs were encouraged to play.

“Key to his philosophy is allowing his men to think,” says Rock, “believing that the game is about players interchanging positions, attacking and defending as units, but not being restricted when they are in possession.

“There clearly are rules and a phenomenal work-ethic is in place but it is just as clear that they have a freedom to express themselves when they are on the ball.”

To an extent, Gilroy had a similar outlook when he took over in 2009.

Then Kerry came to Croke Park on the August bank-holiday weekend and cut loose, beating Dublin by 17 points, leaving Gilroy to remark that his players resembled “startled earwigs”.

On the back of that humiliation, the idealist quickly became a pragmatist and the changed manifesto resulted in the capture of the 2011 All-Ireland.

Gavin, though, is a different man. At his unveiling last September, he made it clear he wished to entertain as well as win.

And over a winter analysing how Dublin had been knocked off their perch, two issues became clear — first that the pace of the team wasn’t as sharp in 2012 as it had been 12 months previously, and secondly, that Dublin weren’t committing enough players to attack.

Ciaran Kilkenny in Dublin's Leinster semi-final victory over Kildare
Ciaran Kilkenny in Dublin’s Leinster
semi-final victory over Kildare

The answer was to change players as well as a pattern of play, with a batch of his Under-21s — Ciaran Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey, and Paul Mannion — stepping up to the plate.

That they have started so promisingly — the new players and the new manager — says so much about the new Dublin.

“But remember,” cautions former Mayo player, Kevin McStay, “they cannot be compared to the 2011 team yet. That side won an All-Ireland. This team hasn’t done that.”

Rock agrees: “August is when the All-Ireland series really starts. All we have seen to date have been guidelines.”

And hammerings. Between them, Mayo, Dublin, Kerry and Cork have played eight games to reach their provincial finals.

The average winning margin has been 16 points. “It is lopsided,” says McStay. “But don’t be fooled into thinking this is a new thing. For years, the Football Championship has had its haves and the have-nots.”

In fact, there was a time when the divide was a hell of a lot worse.

From 1974 until 1986, Dublin and Kerry shared 12 of the 13 All-Irelands and in those years only five other teams — Galway (twice), Armagh, Roscommon, Offaly (twice) and Tyrone — reached an All-Ireland final.

Were the provincial championships any more unpredictable then than they are now?

From 1981 through to 1989, only two teams, Mayo and Galway, won Connacht. After Offaly fell into decline after their 1982 All-Ireland, Dublin and Meath shared every Leinster between them until 1997.

And since the 1930s, when Tipp became a hurling rather than a dual county, the Munster Championship has been shared by Kerry and Cork every year bar one. At one stage, following the Milltown Massacre of 1979, when Kerry defeated Clare by 9-21 to 1-9, Kerry were handed a bye to the 1980 Munster final.

So an easy pathway to an August quarter-final isn’t just Dublin’s issue.

In reality, it is highly likely the four provincial champions will, between them, have encountered just three meaningful matches — Cork-Kerry; Donegal-Tyrone; Donegal-Down.

How this will affect Dublin is something that only August will tell us.

“I’d always guard against the idea that they are on their way to an All-Ireland,” says Rock.

“This is July. The prize is handed out in September and I’ve seen a lot of Dublin teams get hyped too early and then beaten too early. 2008 is the prime example of that. As the summer goes on, the pressure mounts.”

How Gavin and his cubs handle it could define their summer and his tenure. Gilroy, a self-made businessman, ignored the flak thrown his way from ex-players turned columnists.

That thick skin coupled with an iron-clad belief and ability to be tactically flexible proved as critical to Dublin’s 2011 victory as Stephen Cluxton’s capacity to nail long-distance frees.

Gavin, to date, is untested, yet to meet a Championship team as talented, yet to have his tactics examined by an equally smart coach, yet to be savaged on The Sunday Game, yet to be heckled by The Hill.

We know about the coach. We have still to learn about the man.



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