Dublin look leagues apart from the rest as contenders so far
Jim Gavin’s men look a cut above and they still have players to come back
A little more than half way through the regulation matches in this year’s Allianz Football League, the pre-season belief that Division One was the strongest in years has been largely vindicated with the fitfulness of form in Division Two doing little to challenge the view that the best eight teams in the country are keeping each other company in the top flight.
This will ensure that the modern relevance of the league to the outcome of the All-Ireland championship is maintained for another year at least.
This is the 12th season of the qualifiers and calendar-year league, a combination of scheduling and formats that has coincided with the spring competition becoming a reliable marker for the summer.
There’s no need to labour the point beyond a couple of striking statistics. During the 12 years in question seven of the All-Ireland winners had already appeared in the league final earlier that year with five of them having won it. A further two had reached the play-offs the previous spring.
The exceptions were Kerry in 2007, Tyrone in 2008 and Donegal last year. The first two were highly experienced teams, who could afford to tread water. Had it not been for the demanding qualifications required to reach the play-offs in both of those years – top two counties contesting the final – only Tyrone would have missed out.
Viewed from the other perspective - as a predictor rather than a post hoc indicator - you could say that of the league winners only Donegal six years ago and Derry 12 months later completely disappeared afterwards but that would be to overlook that eight of the winning players in last September’s All-Ireland final also played for Donegal in ’07.
There’s no disputing who’s top of the prospective lists at this stage of the season.
Dublin manager Jim Gavin’s enough of a strategist to understand that nothing is as straightforward as it might appear at present – and yesterday’s news that forward Diarmuid Connolly is awaiting sentencing in the District Court for assault is a grim disturbance – but on the field there’s no arguing how positive the campaign to date has been.
First-year management momentum and the pick of a couple of under-21 winning teams of his own making have given Gavin what might appear an enviable opportunity but exploiting such situations isn’t easy and also creates pressure.
Yet the fast tracking of those players has progressed smoothly. Their mobility, athleticism and pace have been noticeable but the most important aspect of the performances has been the technical accomplishment of the newcomers. For years Dublin looked doomed to produce athletes whose optimum game creaked under pressure but so far the football and ability to play the situation in front of them have been impressive.
One element of the team approach that has come straight from the successful under-21 teams of 2010 and ’12 has been the determination to play the bench and implement a 20-man game. At under-age level Gavin always ran his bench with the effect of maintaining and at times intensifying pressure on opponents.
He has candidly accepted that the Ballymun Kickhams players would be at a disadvantage coming into the county set-up having missed so much of the league but the form of James McCarthy, Philly McMahon and Alan Hubbard would still add to the already abundant options.
McCarthy is one of five senior All-Ireland winners to have missed the start of the season. Footballer of the Year in 2011 Alan Brogan is still on the way back from injury whereas the former captain Bryan Cullen has only returned in the past couple of weeks.
The caution administered by Gavin is valid, as successful league campaigns can redefine the parameters of selection debates. Eleven years ago, the Kilkenny hurlers came through the spring as league winners with new players who were expected to make way for the return of more familiar faces as the season progressed.
It didn’t happen, as Brian Cody persevered with a number of the newcomers who went to add the All-Ireland the following September and much else in the years that followed.
Is the new wave sufficiently irresistible to withstand something happening to Bernard Brogan? It’s not a hypothesis Jim Gavin’s going to want to subject to serious scrutiny because on the evidence to date Brogan is back in the rhythm of two and three years ago. But are team prospects a complete write-off in his absence, as would have been the case in the past few seasons? Less so, you’d imagine.
Strong indications aren’t guarantees but compared with their competitors so far – Kerry having to replace incrementally one of the top three generations in the county’s history with a less than flourishing supply coming from under-age levels; Mayo still looking for the sort of outstanding strike forwards that All-Ireland contenders realistically need; Cork trying to refresh their defence and attacking tempo and Kildare needing to work out was last Sunday a systemic or materials failure – Dublin have to be happy with the direction they’re taking and its positive precedents.
Meanwhile, in what has become something of a falling season it was nonetheless a shock to hear of Tony Mansfield’s passing, at the age of 73, in a Cork hospital.
An irrepressible enthusiast for both the GAA and Waterford, he dedicated most of his life to Gaelic games. A panellist on the team that reached the 1963 hurling All-Ireland, his career went on to include success as a manager and coach with his club Abbeyside-Ballinacourty and county, most famously with Waterford’s first, and so far only, All-Ireland under-21 hurling title in 1992.
A lifelong trade unionist, he was a full-time officer for the ATGWU and liked to point out that the winning under-21 team had been picked in the union’s offices in Dungarvan.
Generous with his time and a great hurling conversationalist, he’ll be sadly missed.