Dublin are so far ahead that Leinster is beyond repair
Tipping Point: Fans know how it will end – no wonder they don’t bother their barney to go
Stephen Cluxton leads out the Dublin team on his 100th Leinster Championship appearance, at Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
On the walk into Croke Park on Sunday, just down at the corner where the Hogan Stand meets Hill 16, two metallers stood gawping at the edifice in front of them. That’s right, metallers. One bald, one hirsute, both in cargo shorts, black T-shirts, Slayer, Megadeth, the whole bit. If you were to guess they had been to Slane on Saturday for Metallica, they could not have been offended by your presumption.
They were German, but one of them had been here before and he was explaining to his mate that this huge stadium was going to be filled today for the Dublin football team. Croke Park never looks bigger than it does at that corner, where you can peer in through the gate and see the seven floors of seats rise up around the bowl, with the sheer terrace of the Hill off to your left. In the imagination, before the stiles open on a matchday, it’s a wondrous place.
Had they chanced it and looked about popping inside for the afternoon, we all know their wonder would have taken a fair battering. But they were only passing through and had no notion of going to the games, so it would have been pointless to interrupt them with the truth. What would you say, anyway?
“Well actually chaps, the place will only be about a third full. Time was, you’d get seventy-odd thousand in here for a Leinster semi-final double-header, but Dublin have only lost one game in the competition in 15 years so nobody bothers their barney anymore. Hope they rocked the gaff for ye down in Slane because this place will be like a Monday afternoon cinema visit.”
Which it was. As the Meath and Laois teams warmed up on the pitch 15 minutes before the first game, the Cusack Stand had fewer than 1,000 people in it. That’s no vague estimate – they were easily counted. Not alone could you hear the teams going through their warm-ups, you could all but hear the grass grow underneath them. You’d feel a greater sense of occasion paying your car tax.
Meath and Laois played out a perfectly harmless semi-final. At times, when Donal Keogan or Bryan Menton or Cillian O’Sullivan would plant a flag for Meath, you allowed your mind to go crazy and imagined the place rocking with hard-chaws from Navan and Skryne and Ashbourne a fortnight from now. But then you remembered that it was the Leinster Championship we’re talking about here, and sure Ashbourne is full of Dubs now anyway.
And then Dublin came out and did what Dublin do to everyone in the province and have done for pretty much the whole decade. It was 15 points yesterday; it will be the same again or something like it in the final. The Leinster Championship is a non-competition.
As the Meath and Laois teams warmed up before the first game, the Cusack Stand had fewer than 1,000 people in it
This thing is broken. It really is. You can get smothered under the avalanche of numbers when it comes to how far Dublin are ahead of everyone, and yet the beauty of sport is that everything is measurable. These are hunches or swings in the dark. Sport tells you what the story is and it tells you right between the eyes.
Yesterday was Dublin’s 20th Leinster Championship game since Jim Gavin took the reins at the start of 2013. They have, of course, won all 20. No great leap forward there – they won 22 of the 23 they played before he took over, going all the way back to the start of 2005.
But the margins have ballooned beyond all proportion to what went before. Of those 20 wins under Gavin, 18 have been by 10 points or more. The other two were by seven and nine: the Leinster finals of 2013 and 2017. For comparison, in those beano years between 2005 and 2012 when Dublin won seven titles out of eight in the province, they only put up five double-digit wins altogether. Essentially, they’ve gone from handing out double-digit beatings 22 per cent of the time to doing it 90 per cent of the time.
Thing is, nobody can see a way for it to be any different anytime soon. Dublin’s ability to refresh and regenerate their playing squad is apparently set in train for generations at this stage. They took the field on Sunday with Dean Rock and Jonny Cooper not on the panel through injury, and with Eoin Murchan and Philly McMahon on the bench. Darren Gavin is this year’s new addition; Paddy Small came on to snipe a point. Dublin will have footballers as long as there is football.
The numbers for this semi-final double-header have been steadily dwindling across the decade
Will anyone in Leinster still care, though? When they announced the attendance at half-time in the second game here, the figure of 36,126 was met with a few nodding heads and raised eyebrows. Not because it was so low, more because it was generally expected to be lower still. There had been talk beforehand of them struggling to get 30,000 through the gates.
That will happen in time, surely. The numbers for this semi-final double-header have been steadily dwindling across the decade, from 58,000 in 2011 to 51,000 in 2015 to 36,000 this year. Where does this end? Where does it go?
With supremely odd timing, the GAA put out a press release at 4.50pm on Sunday afternoon, just as the second half was getting under way in the Dublin game. It was to announce the names and aims of the taskforce set up to take a wholesale look at fixtures in the GAA and try to find a workable calendar, with everything on the table and up for grabs. And you can only bid them godspeed, not an easy task ahead of them, etc, etc.
The Leinster Championship is a bolted horse, though. Whatever they come up with, there’s no fixing what it has become.