Dublin’s unbeaten run is no bolt from the blue
Capital gains based on great groundwork and true self belief in Jim Gavin's camp
Dublin players go through their warm-up routine before the league match against Mayo at MacHale Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.
It would be misleading to describe this as a “streak”. The term is too flashy and volatile and to capture what has been a gold-standard two years of unbeatable accomplishment in league and championship by Dublin.
The funny thing is that the opening game against Tyrone, on March 7th, 2015, a brain-tease defined by claustrophobic defence from the Ulster men and ceaseless patience from the Dubs, provoked a chorus of despair. Football is finished! The end is nigh! Etcetera. Etcetera.
Nigh? The end was only beginning.
That night, it’s a fair bet that the Dublin management was just pleased to attain a positive result. The Dubs were, undeniably, a terrifically potent team that evening and were favourites to win that year’s All-Ireland. But the fact was Kerry were All-Ireland champions. And Kerry had just beaten Dublin the week before in a caustic encounter down in Tralee, a match contested with a bitter, keen edge which had little to do with the Allianz League points on offer.
Twelve cards were issued: of those one red, five yellow and two black were presented to Dublin men. That day created the illusion Kerry had somehow wrestled back supremacy in the ongoing tug-of-love/hate which defines the football tradition of both counties.
Dublin’s stunning All-Ireland semi-final defeat against Donegal the previous August carried live consequences through to the 2015 season. It asked so many questions. How would Dublin respond? Would they change their approach? Could they change? After three games in the 2015 league, their record was: LWL (Cork, Donegal, Kerry). It is worth going back to that opening afternoon in Parc Uí Rinn, which Cork won on a score of 1-15 to 0-16.
“The first thing I remember is that it was the first day of the league,” says Brian Cuthbert, the Cork manager then. “Dublin had been beaten by Donegal the previous August and we had finished up against Mayo in the quarter-finals and we had a lot of work done. I’d have felt that they came to try out a few players.
“We were neck and neck for a long time and then we got a goal that kind of pushed it over us over the line. It was a good enough performance by Cork but we were targeting our home games because we had four away games up North. We really had to go after our home games and we had a lot of work done over the winter. And in the last 10 or 12 minutes we had a bit more in the tank and were able to push on a bit and we were able to get over the line a bit.
“Dublin came minus a lot of their players too. If you look back, if they had eight or nine of their regulars that would have been it.”
Cuthbert is being beyond fair here: his Cork team were young that day also. In the Dubs starting 15 was Rory O’Carroll at full back, a half-back line of Jack McCaffrey, John Small and Jonny Cooper and a full-forward line of Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O’Gara and Cormac Costello.
And perhaps the most interesting detail of the team-sheet for that day revolves around the substitution of Brian Fenton for Denis Bastick. It formed a pattern over the coming months, with Gavin sending the rangy young Raheny man – who opted for football over swimming in his late teens – into games during the shift-changing late second-half chaos when it is easy to fly under the radar.
“I remember him coming on. But I had only seen him with UCD. That year he broke onto the UCD senior team and I had seen him playing against UCC in the higher ed league,” says Cuthbert now.
Fenton was introduced against Kerry too, after 57 minutes for Tomás Brady. There was little sign that night, either, of the radical impact he would make as the season deepened: earning a starting place over the championship and finishing as man of the match against Kerry in the All-Ireland final, collecting his first All-Star and nominated for Footballer of the Year in 2016.
Fenton returns to Kerry this evening in what must be a unique position for any GAA player, never having started a game which Dublin has lost. And his emergence as a player around whom the next decade of Dublin championship teams can be built has, apart from the silverware, been the most satisfying element of these two years for Dublin football as an entity.
If Fenton has been the key find for Dublin over this two-year run, then the subtle reconfiguration of Dublin’s defensive cover has provided them with the engine.
The first sign of what Dublin’s transformation came on a starry Saturday night in Castlebar, when they destroyed Mayo by 2-18 to 0-10. Only the league and all that but there was a turbo quality to Dublin’s attack – the score was 2-10 to 0-6 at half-time which reduced Castlebar, usually a boisterous venue, to silent acceptance.
“It was a complete reality check for us,” Lee Keegan said leaving the pitch that night. “They looked sharper and hungrier for the ball. A lot of our guys just didn’t get out of second gear tonight and you could see it. There were just sharper and hungrier. I am bitterly disappointed.”
By then, Stephen Cluxton – a significant absence for the matches against Cork and Kerry – was back between the posts and Cian O’Sullivan named at centre back, presaging his role as sweeper which helped to ensure that Dublin’s defence would not be swamped by the kind of marauding attack that unseated them in 2014.
No team has scored three goals against Dublin in league or championship since that Donegal game in August 2014. Only Cork (twice), Fermanagh, Laois, Kerry and Donegal have scored two goals in games against Dublin.
Even as they went about chalking up the wins, they erased the cavalier see-if-you-can-outscore-us mentality of 2013 and 2014. They still had the firepower but were developing a miserly attitude in front of their own posts.
Easter Sunday of 2015 saw them up in Clones to face a Monaghan team that were up for it. By then Eoghan O’Gara had been ruled out for the season with an Achilles injury.
It was a significant loss: he remains Dublin’s only traditional big-ball winning full forward. But Dublin kept on motoring, posting 1-22 for the enjoyment of the locals that afternoon in a show which underlined Gavin’s consistent line that his teams would play the game according to the city tradition. At one stage they led by 1-18 to 0-6 and slung over 0-13 from play with no wide shots in the second half.
“We have always said there is no right or wrong way to play football,” Gavin said afterwards. He was addressing the on-going debate about the soul and future of the game, in which the Dubs had been firmly cast in the role of saviour.
“That’s the beauty about it. We have no offside rule so players can play where they want. We have a particular philosophy in Dublin that I have inherited from when I played but it is not the right or wrong way. We try to play an expansive game. It is a great challenge for teams who want to play a creative game to come up with ideas and concepts to beat it and that is a challenge that we have embraced. I think the rules are fine the way they are.”
What was interesting, though, is that Monaghan’s free-running half backs were allowed no latitude by Dublin. When they looked to press forward, Dublin fell back so, at times, their crowded defence looked right at home in the Ulster arena.
“I think they were just tracking their men,” Gavin argued. “If Monaghan players attack they have to be followed. You saw the last seven or eight minutes there when we lost concentration and conceded 1-3 what Monaghan can do.”
So the changes Dublin implemented since the previous August were well in place by Easter. The framework for winning back the All-Ireland had been established. Dublin closed the league as they had opened it: with a game against Cork. This time, however, they were in Croke Park and were travelling at a different rate of knots.
“They had more of their major players back,” says Cuthbert. “They had won four or five games in a row and it was mid-April. I think they just ramped it up and I’d say they were extremely determined – as they have been for the past four or five years – that every competition they are in, they are going to win. And in that league final, they just blew us away.”
The kept that vein of form going. One of the inadvertent consequences of Dublin’s crushing form has been the transformation of the Leinster championship into a wasteland. Gone are the wilding years when Meath – habitually – and Kildare and Offaly occasionally – could visit Croke Park in hopeful mood.
The 4-25 and 5-18 Dublin posted against Longford and Kildare respectively were like the sound of distant canon fire to other All-Ireland contenders and deepened the belief that the city team had moved beyond the reach of other Leinster counties.
The ease with which they retain the provincial championship has not at all weakened their capacity to adapt to the sudden-death stage of the All-Ireland series.
In retaining the 2016 league, Dublin delivered the perfect spring series, registering seven wins on the trot. Roscommon and Monaghan came within a point: the other victories were relatively comfortable.
They were businesslike in their path through Leinster and pulled away in the closing minutes of a terse All-Ireland quarter final against Donegal despite having 13 men on the field.
The only goal was memorable: Paul Mannion, fresh on the field, streaking away from exhausted Donegal men and finishing with devastating coolness. It was another example of Dublin always having another option, another gear, another answer.
All of the other top-tier teams have come close to beating Dublin over the past two years. Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone have all had chances – particularly Mickey Harte’s men on a Saturday night when Croke Park seemed to have been relocated to Antartica. But they did not. Why so? Here is sports psychologist Enda McNulty speaking with Newstalk shortly before last September’s All-Ireland final between Dublin and Mayo.
“If you look at Kerry in the last three games against Dublin: in all three games they have been in a position to beat Dublin in the last 10 minutes. So we can’t say it is physical, we can’t say they didn’t have the technical skills. But we can say they were doing stuff that indicates that they weren’t mentally calm and composed enough.
“I thought Dublin were more mentally comfortable in the white heat of battle. Dublin are battle hardened. Are Mayo as battle hardened? We are only really going to find out not in the first five minutes but in the 73rd minute. That’s when we are going to find out.”
It was true: it went to the wire – on both days. Dublin drew the All-Ireland final and then won the replay by a point. If you can lose a game by a point, you can win a point. Yet again, it came down to tiny percentages. And still they are not sated. Dublin’s run at history has almost been halted in recent weeks. Almost.
Although the 84-year-old Kerry record was rarely mentioned locally before this year; although many Kerry players may have been unaware of it before it was plucked from the dustier GAA records, the fact it is now under imminent threat means the current Kerry team – and the county in general – will be desperate to preserve it.
When you think about it, it is an extraordinary feat. No real off day in two years. Two years unbeaten. It is hard to imagine another team – even another Dublin team – creating such an atmosphere of consistency again.
Tonight in Tralee will have little to do with league or championship. It will simply be about place and legacy. If you had asked Brian Cuthbert on that sleepy league opening day in Cork if he believed his team had just beaten a team about to make a tilt at history, what would he have said?
“I suppose fast forward two months to the league final when they obliterated us: if you said it to me after that game I would have said, yeah that’s a fair possibility. At that time, they had lost to Donegal, they lost their first game against us and then went on to lose to Kerry. So they didn’t look anything in terms of invincibility. Since then they have gone up at least two different levels.
“There is an aura about them. There is that sense of invincibility about them. They are certainly there to be knocked but no team seems to be able to get near them. But to answer your question on that day, no I certainly wouldn’t have seen them then going two years unbeaten.
“I think they are much stronger now. Their ability to think their way through games is second to none. I think they have come across various different defences and have worked their way through those. I think they are more patient. And I think they have huge competition for places there and a person in charge who can get the most out of what they have. So I think it is going to take a very good team to beat them.”