Knowing what Dublin are going to do is one thing, stopping them doing it is quite another
Brian Cuthbert, Jason Ryan and Dessie Dolan on what makes Jim Gavin’s side so hard to beat
Goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs form an important part of Dublin’s game plan. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Brian Cuthbert had a fair idea of what would be on the menu when Cork and Dublin came out for the second half a fortnight ago. The question was how it would be served. Cork’s 2-9 to 0-7 lead was most likely not long for this world but forewarned in this case didn’t necessarily amount to being forearmed. When you’re playing Dublin, you’ll need a lot of shields if you’re going to match all those swords.
Straight from the start, Cuthbert saw something he hadn’t planned for. As Ciarán Branagan bent to pick up the ball for the throw-in, Michael Darragh Macauley had a new partner standing beside him in midfield, with Declan O’Mahony having been substituted at the break.
Hardly earth-shattering in and of itself – over the course of the league Macauley has been variously paired with O’Mahony, Cian O’Sullivan, James McCarthy, Shane Carthy, Davy Byrne and Tomás Brady. Yet none of them was alongside him now. Paul Flynn was.
“They have massive flexibility in moving guys around,” says Cuthbert. “For the second half the last day, we came out and saw Flynn had moved to midfield alongside Macauley. We hadn’t seen that before at any stage. That was totally new. And Flynn went on to have a huge influence on the game in the second half.”
It wasn’t the winning or losing of the game. That’s not the point. When Cuthbert has gone back through the tape, his eye has been drawn far more critically to what his own side did wrong in coughing up a 17-point turnaround than to Dublin’s myriad abundances.
Yet in a small but significant way, it lays bare the difficulty of working out a way to defeat Jim Gavin’s side. You can clean them out for a full half, you can lead by 10 points with half an hour to go, you can make them try out their eighth midfielder in eight games. And you can still end up on the wrong side of the result.
“Somebody asked me afterwards would any other team in the league have come back from 10 points down with 30 minutes left and my answer was, emphatically, no. That’s what I believe. Nobody else would have.
“As a team, they are very, very sure of what they are capable of doing and I think they’re quite ambitious and they don’t want to stop at what they have. They have a belief probably that they can win any match regardless of how it’s going and they just keep coming at you. It’s just very, very difficult to stop them.”
They are the Rubik’s Cube with 10 blue squares, the Sudoku with a rogue zero. They haven’t sailed through the league by any means, for three games in a row other teams have had their chances to end their league campaign but the All-Ireland champions are back in the final. First Mayo, then Tyrone and latterly Cork have all made it to the top row of the board only to land on a snake with their last throw of the dice.
On the face it, there’s no particular mystery here. Dublin have the deepest squad, an expert manager, a winning mentality built up through years of success in Leinster, at college level and at underage. What we are seeing is the tip of a spear that has huge heft behind it when it comes to all the crucial factors – pure talent, playing numbers, coaching structures, finance, sheer weight of effort in the city.
There’s an argument that says they should always be the best team in the country and it’s only lack of proper organisation that has meant it’s taken them this long to get there. But those are idle thoughts for a different article.
This one is about what damage the spear can cause and what, if anything, can be done to blunt it. Jason Ryan has faced them with Kildare and previously with Wexford, having yet to win with either side, albeit that he ran them closer with Wexford than Kildare. His first description of them is a ruthless side who will never beat you by five if they think they can beat you by 12. Kildare missed six goal chances against them on a Saturday in early March and finished on the wrong side of a 10-point trimming. The two previous times the margins were 20 and 13. Dublin tramp the dirt down.