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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Dublin’s awesome strength-in-depth

Paddy-Andrews-nTHIS might sound strange, but do Dublin really need Paul Mannion?

We only ask because we were already unsettled by the abundance of proven and promising forwards available to Jim Gavin.

Before Jim’s time in charge, Dublin didn’t have a bad sextet operating inside the opposition’s 45.

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For the 2011 All-Ireland win, they started Paul Flynn, for our money now the best, or at least the most consistent, wing-forward in the country; that conglomeration of muscle and football talent they call Bryan Cullen; the undoubtedly brilliant but undoubtedly unstable Diarmuid Connolly; and the small matter of the 2010 and 2011 footballers of the year, reared under the same roof and answering to the name of Brogan.

The sixth man to start against Kerry that day was all-star and eight-time Leinster medalist Barry Cahill, now retired even though not yet 32.

In most other counties, Cahill would still be one of those men you build a team around. In most other counties, a new manager would be heavily reliant on the forwards that helped poach a ferociously hard-won All-Ireland with tight victories over Donegal and Kerry just 20-odd months ago.

But this is Dublin, where the men who already have All-Ireland medals in their pockets as starters are, well, just the start. When Gavin sits down to scrawl his championship attack on the back of a cigarette box this summer, don’t expect him to finish by closing time.

There is Ciaran Kilkenny, whose talent is well documented. But there is also Paddy Andrews, who, we would argue, has been Dublin’s best forward this league campaign, even allowing for the resurgence of Bernard Brogan in the early matches.

Andrews finished the campaign as he started it, with three points from play in Donegal, to go with his five against Cork; he has averaged almost three points from play per game. Yet it seems unlikely that he will start at the business end of the championship.

There is the not-so-small matter of Kevin McManamon, who more or less won the All-Ireland for Dublin. How frustrated he must be: when unleashed from the bench, he seems to only play blinders, which seems to only cement the perception that he is best kept to be unleashed from the bench.

There is Dean Rock, the Leinster GAA club player of the year, who can scarcely get a look in. While we’re on the subject of club football, there is Ted Furman; if Furman played, for, say, Crossmaglen, and was as electric as he has been for Ballymun, Armagh would be giving him plenty of opportunities to make an inter-county place his own. But he is not a factor for Dublin.

A string of other players have got game time up front in the National League: Paddy Quinn, Emmet O Conghaile, Ciaran Reddin, Shane Carthy, Philip Ryan, Tomas Brady, Craig Dias and Jason Whelan.

And behind or beside all these new names, are, for example, Eoghan O’Gara, who was on the pitch at the end in the 2011 All-Ireland final. The queue to make the Dublin football team is surpassed in Ireland only by the queue to emigrate.

Yes, but is there anyone special coming through? Well, there’s Cormac Costello, man of the match in the 2012 All-Ireland minor final. In both football and hurling.

All of which brings us back to our question: do Dublin really need Paul Mannion? Weren’t the 21 players we’ve already mentioned enough to be going on with, without Mannion sticking his oar in? And he has gone about his oar-sticking in striking fashion.

The corner-forward was man-of-the-match against both Down and Donegal, adding sheen to his performance in Ballybofey with a brilliant last-kick equaliser from play.

The head-spinning amount of good footballers available to Dublin does not stop in the forward line. The 35 players Gavin has used in the league to date do not include, for example, James McCarthy, one the stars of 2011.

And as for players such as Alan Hubbard, another outstanding Ballymun player in that club’s march to an All-Ireland final, well, he hasn’t even made the squad.

It’s around this juncture that you’re going to hit us with a snotty “So what, he can only field 15”. That’s true, but the advantage that such strength in depth brings is the ability to cope with almost any injury.

We heard it said after Rory O’Carroll’s masterful displays in the early league games that Dublin had no replacement for him. Well, O’Carroll is out for a month, yet in Ballybofey, his sidekick, John Cooper, held Michael Murphy scoreless from play.

And if, for example, Tyrone are enthused by their win against the Dubs in Croke Park, then they should consider that Dublin fielded that day without Stephen Cluxton, Cooper, O’Carroll and Bernard Brogan.

Through all this experimentation, the best teams in the country have been dismantled: Cork, Kildare, Kerry and Down were all demoralised long before the end.

Tyrone can claim to have beaten only an understrength Dublin side; the Donegal game might hint at a slight discomfort for Dublin outside of Croke Park, which hardly matters when the odds of them playing a championship game anywhere else are about the same as you would have got on Auroras Encore. No, for our money, only Mayo were truly competitive with a strong Dublin team in its natural habitat.

That is not to say there is no point in the other 31 fielding this summer, for Dublin still do not quite convince at midfield. Yes, Michael Darragh Macauley and Denis Bastick are very good at what they do, and Cian O’Sullivan has had a cracking spring, but Dublin still don’t have a classical high fielder who can convincingly spread the ball about.

Of more concern is that Irish sports teams are at their most dangerous when written off against heavy favourites: Munster were about the 10,000th team to underline that point at the weekend.

How Kerry, for example, would relish shocking the Dubs this summer. How any leading team would, for they could then boast, in classic GAA quotes style, “of being the team that beat the team they said couldn’t be beaten”.

So for Gavin, with great talent comes great expectations; he is the one manager for whom it can be said that anything less than Sam will be a failure.

Dublin are the heavy favourites for the All-Ireland, all their rivals shaken by unsatisfactory league campaigns and yet dreaming of silencing the Hill in August or September. It couldn’t be set up better.

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Eamonn O Molloy
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Eamonn O'Molloy is Gaelic Football columnist withThe Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @EamonnOMolloy

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