Jim Gavin playing the league numbers game well for Dublin
Dublin travel to face Donegal already qualified for league semi-finals
Such has been the “consistency of performance” that manager Jim Gavin has demanded that Dublin are now afforded the luxury of travelling to Ballybofey on Sunday to take on All-Ireland champions Donegal without really worrying about winning or losing – their place in the semi-finals already secure, along with Tyrone and Kildare.
Although that doesn’t mean there is nothing at stake: Gavin is set to further extend the number of Dublin players so far utilised in this league campaign, and with that further increase the competition for starting places.
So far, Gavin has either started or introduced 31 players, only two less than Kerry, who by using 33 players so far may have set something of a league record, at least for 2013.
However, Gavin is now likely to use at least one or more of the Ballymun Kickhams players for Sunday’s game, provided they are match fit (Gavin has demanded of himself that no player will be considered unless 100 per cent right).
Defenders James McCarthy, Philly McMahon and Seán George and forwards Dean Rock and Jason Whelan have been part of the extended Dublin panel, and all of whom started in the All-Ireland club football final defeat to St Brigid’s, back on St Patrick’s Day. McCarthy is nursing a hamstring injury picked up that game, although Rock is likely to get a run sooner rather than later, such was his form in helping Ballymun reach the All-Ireland final.
Either way, in using 31 players in their six games so far – effectively enough for two teams – Gavin has kept competition for places at a premium, and only a few of them can feel certain of starting places. Gavin’s wide spread of players is also impressive considering three of Dublin's 2011 All-Ireland winners have not featured: Alan Brogan and Michael Fitzsimons remain long-term injury absentees, while Barry Cahill has announced his retirement.
Gavin hasn’t been slow to rotate players either, starting Shane Supple in goal in place of 2013 captain Stephen Cluxton against both Tyrone and Kildare, and using all five permitted substitutes in each game, with the exception of the defeat to Tyrone, back on March 13th.
He’s also rested top scorer Bernard Brogan, with his 2-28, for their last two games, and it is likely Brogan will sit out Sunday’s game against Donegal as well.
Definitely ruled out is defender Rory O’Carroll, who is still recovering from minor ankle surgery, and Ciarán Kilkenny, who made a swifter than expected return to the Dublin panel thanks in part to the county’s prompt exit from the Leinster under-21 championship, but will be sidelined until the start of the championship after sustaining medial knee ligament damage in the defeat to Tyrone.
Even with the five wins out of six, and a highly impressive scoring difference of +41 that puts them top of the table ahead of Tyrone (who also have 10 points), Gavin has been adamant that making the league semi-finals – or indeed the final – won’t alter his training programme, or indeed focus on the championship.
“Not one little bit,” he said. “We’re on a training programme, to take us up to the first of June, and we’ll be sticking to that. It’s always a game-by-game stage process in the league. There’s a round of Dublin championship games the week of the semi-finals, and that’s going to go ahead. So this is bonus territory, really. We won’t be changing our plans at all.”
Whether or not that focus changes slightly as Dublin close in on a first league title since 1983 remains to be seen: in the meantime, and it may be entirely coincidental, by using 31 players so far, Gavin has called on exactly the same number of players that his predecessor, Pat Gilroy, used in the 2011 league campaign, when Dublin made the league final, only to lose out in a narrow finish to Cork.
It’s a very different scenario for Donegal, assuming manager Jim McGuinness is equally keen to make the semi-finals. He not only needs to beat Dublin on Sunday to stay in with a shout, but also hope Cork lose to Mayo by a fairly hefty margin. It is, in other words, partly out of Donegal’s hands, and yet there is the strong sense that they are already far more focused on their Ulster championship quarter-final showdown against Tyrone on May 26th – now just over seven weeks away.
Something McGuinness might be concerned about is the less prolific spread of players getting so-called league time, at least compared to the likes of Dublin and Kerry: Donegal have so far used 25 players, and five of those have only made the briefest of appearances, and thus hardly “blooded” to the extent that McGuinness might have wanted.
What is certain at this stage is that Karl Lacey won’t be rushed back for Sunday's game, as he continues to recover from the hip operation required just before Christmas, which means the Tyrone championship match is likely to be his next appearance, unless Donegal make a league final. Also ruled out of Sunday’s game is defender Neil McGee, who injured his knee in the defeat to Mayo in round six, although it wasn’t nearly as bad as first feared.