Gaelic GamesThe Weekend That Was

Cormac Costello’s form gives Dublin a quandary - how many inside forwards to play in the same team

With Con O’Callaghan, Paul Mannion, Colm Basquel and Paddy Small to include as well, balance will be critical

Dublin’s Cormac Costello after scoring a point. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

It was entirely fitting that Cormac Costello was the last link in the chain that led to Dublin’s equaliser on Sunday. Across the afternoon in Dr Hyde Park, the Dublin forward took eight shots at the posts and scored seven points. His only miss was his first attempt, a shot off balance that was slightly unlucky to catch the outside rather than inside of the Mayo post. Otherwise, he was perfection itself.

He showed off the full spectrum of his score-taking talents. Left foot, right foot, fisted points, frees. Some of the Dublin scores in the first half were on the breakaway, requiring Costello to win dirty ball in one-on-one battles. He was able to do that too.

Throughout his career, Costello has always been an interesting barometer for any of us looking in and trying to divine where Dublin are at. In the years when they were shock-and-awe merchants, laying waste to everything in front of them, he invariably got squeezed out as the championship wore on. A good man to run up a score in a league or Leinster Championship game but ultimately one who found himself as the seventh forward come All-Ireland final day.

As time has worn on and the greats of the six-in-a-row team have ended their service, Costello has become more and more of a factor. Last year, after a decade on the Dublin panel, he finally started an All-Ireland final. He was one of the subs used in Jim Gavin’s first championship match in 2013 yet it took him until 2021 to earn his first All Star nomination and 2023 to earn his second.


Dublin and Mayo play out a scintillating draw as Dessie Farrell’s side go straight to quartersOpens in new window ]

He did not get the nod on either occasion, making him by far the leading championship scorer in Dublin football history never to have won an All Star. Costello’s seven-point haul on Sunday brings his total up to 8-143, leaving him seventh on their all-time list. Given a fair wind over the rest of the summer, he could well catch and pass Charlie Redmond on 8-158.

If he does, the only Dublin players who have ever contributed more championship points than Cormac Costello will be Dean and Barney Rock, Bernard Brogan, Jimmy Keaveney and Ciarán Kilkenny. His last-gasp point against Mayo actually moved him one clear of Con O’Callaghan.

Dublin’s Cormac Costello and Sam Callinan of Mayo. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Bit by little bit, he has made himself a crucial part of Dublin’s strikeforce. That it has taken him until a few weeks short of his 30th birthday to do so would have surprised plenty of Dublin observers back in the day, when Costello was the star turn on the various underage teams that challenged for honours. But he appears to be in situ now, a fixture on the team sheet.

Question is, what does that say about Dublin? Costello was excellent on Sunday, diligent in defence and clinical in front of goal. But overall, it was one of those games where Dublin looked to be fitting a quart into a pint-pot with their forwards. Not for the first time, either.

Their starting front six read Niall Scully, Costello, Kilkenny, Paddy Small, Con O’Callaghan and Colm Basquel. If we put Scully and Kilkenny down as half-forwards, you’re looking at four inside forwards for three – and often two – inside forward roles. Add in Paul Mannion, who presumably won’t be confined to bench duties come the latter stages and you get the sense that Dessie Farrell is in danger of having too many of the same type of player.

“Mmmm”, to quote Marlo Stanfield. “Sound like one of them good problems.” And so it might be. Certainly, there are plenty of the remaining 12 teams who could badly do with a useful inside forward of the type that Farrell will definitely be leaving off his first 15. But as things get increasingly serious over the next month, the other challengers will doubtless attempt to exploit any top-heaviness in the Dublin line-up.

Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan and David McBrien of Mayo. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

It was very noticeable, for example, that Mayo continually pushed one or other of David McBrien and Stephen Coen into the square in front of Stephen Cluxton on Sunday when they were building attacks. On the face of it. McBrien’s main job on the day was to mark Con O’Callaghan, just as Coen’s was to keep tabs on Kilkenny.

It meant that there were occasions when O’Callaghan was the deepest Dublin defender, trying to get touch-tight to McBrien on the edge of the square. Coen, for his part, took advantage of a cavalry charge after a turnover to get himself straight through on goal at one point, with Kilkenny back up the field. He blazed over but it was a seriously good chance.

Dublin will take a huge amount from Sunday, sharpened no doubt by their first major test of the championship. Most of all, it will be worth keeping an eye on their forward personnel the rest of the way. Getting the balance right will be top of Farrell’s list of priorities.