GAA’s rare magic moments nourish dreams of chasing pack
Dublin may appear omnipotent but at least four counties will not be cowed in summer
Dublin’s Dean Rock kicks a point to level the Division 1 game late on against Tyrone in February. Photo: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
“You gave us a great day out, a day out of all of our lives,” Guard Casey tells his prisoner at the end of John McGahern’s The Creamery Manager, a story framed around the escapism of their trip to the Ulster final in Clones. A day out of all our lives: no phrase better catches the magical illusion which has sustained the All-Ireland football championship for the past century: a sense that on this day, anything might happen. It is worth recalling now that Dublin’s extension of their magisterial run of 35 games and two years without defeat has stretched that willingness to believe to breaking point.
The internal and external reaction to what this Dublin football team has done has been notably muted. On the surface, that is understandable. The All-Ireland football championship thrives on the time-honoured possibility of ‘the shock’; the faith that every so often an unbelievable result from somewhere will cause the dust to rise across the country on summer days.
In order to believe in the championship, everyone has to allow the possibility that teams from smaller football counties can become possessed with a mysterious internal power and upset form and reason by beating the teams from storied counties rich in All-Ireland heritage and tradition and resources. Those thrilling, otherworldly days almost never happen but they do materialise just enough to make us keep on believing in the promise of the championship.
More importantly, they give the players involved in the majority of intercounty teams – those that win nothing, year in and year out – an intangible belief that there is a greater point to the honour of playing for the county.
Great teams are remembered through All-Irelands. The idea of consistency has never been that hot in Gaelic games. That’s why the original unbeaten record, shaped by the Kerry team of the early 1930s, was never spoken about until Dublin began to close in on it over the course of this league. It was an obscure feat, achieved when the GAA was still a relatively young organisation, and it would have stayed that way had it not been for Dublin’s extraordinary run.
That alone should alert us to the significance of Dublin’s achievement. The All-Ireland is won by some county every year. But this record, reached with the minimum of fuss or fanfare in Croke Park last weekend, may never be repeated – particularly given that Dublin are showing little sign of slowing down.
The run of unbeaten games is contained within the bigger Dublin story of winning the last four leagues and three of the last four All-Ireland titles. No team has beaten them in league or championship since the spring of 2015. Since then, they have been the team that every other leading football county has targeted. Forget about the ominous ease with which they now dictate the Leinster championship, a once thriving provincial contest which has become a route.
On the road: that’s where Jim Gavin’s men have surpassed themselves. They have wrung out results in unforgiving provincial venues like Killarney, Castlebar and Ballybofey over that time. Donegal could have halted their run on a filthy night in MacCumhaill Park. Kerry should have finished it a week later in Tralee. Tyrone, too, had a fine chance to execute a famous coup in Croke Park on a freezing night at the beginning of the league.
In the All-Ireland championship, both Kerry and Mayo can point to the intricate moments – a pass here, a decision there – which might have swung great days in their favour. The story is not as straightforward as Dublin awash with players and GAA funding steamrolling other counties. As Gavin has repeatedly suggested, check the scorelines. All-Ireland champions in 2013 by a single point; in 2015 by 0-12 to 0-9, and again last year by 1-15 to 1-14 over Mayo after a replay.
In all of these league and championship games, other teams were primed for Dublin. Any team they meet is charged by the challenge of trying to beat Dublin. Conversely, Dublin are expected to win, week in and week out. It can be difficult for any team in any sport not to become complacent or to switch off at some stage over the season. Dublin have never permitted themselves that luxury – or have never been allowed to by Gavin.
The obvious reason for that is that he has inculcated such an emphasis on the collective that no player (with the exception of Stephen Cluxton) can feel absolutely certain about his place on the team. Auditioning for a place on Dublin’s starting team is such a demanding process that even the most accomplished players feel compelled to perform. “The currency we deal in is in performance,” Gavin said last week after his team had obliterated Roscommon.
Gavin’s businesslike demeanour and Dublin’s extravagant brilliance has created a general sense of oppression. Kerry has found itself in the unique position of not being the envied county. It’s a place in which they have no wish to dwell for too long. Many dark predications have been made about Dublin’s omnipotence overwhelming Gaelic football until it is destroyed as a national spectacle. We’ll see. Flick back through the records of the 1970s and 1980s and recall the merciless hammerings inflicted by Kerry and Dublin on would-be contenders. In those decades, there were far fewer live All-Ireland contenders than there are right now.
Dublin are everyone’s favourite to retain their league and All-Ireland crowns and rightly so. But nobody can say it’s impossible that they will be beaten by any of at least four counties this summer. Their key orchestrators – Cluxton, in particular – will not be wearing the blue forever. The coaching structure facilitated by the GAA’s investment means that future managers will have an enviable selection of young players with which to assemble the team. But will they always be able to concoct the rare blend of talent, honesty, coldness and ambition which has been the backbone of this Dublin revolution? It isn’t that simple.
It is appropriate that Dublin complete their league programme in Clones on Sunday. The atmosphere in the ground or the town has changed little since it featured in the McGahern story first published in 1989. It comes into its own, of course, on the high days of July when, as Frank Shovlin wrote, it seems to belong “to an Ireland that no longer exists and somehow for one day in the year appears shimmering from the mist, like Hy Brasil”.
This is only April but any day the All-Ireland champions come to town is a big day. They will come out in droves to see a team that has done something exceptional; something that will, in time, be regarded as being as significant as winning the All-Ireland. And Monaghan, after all, are boxing clever for a place in the league final themselves. And you can be sure that in the saloons along Fermanagh Street from lunchtime on that it will be said that, yes, of course you can’t look past the Dubs and sure they’ve been destroying teams . . . but still, you wouldn’t just put it past Monaghan . . . you’d never know . . . they’d be contrary enough.
Of course, that’s just magical thinking. But it’s what makes the day out worthwhile.