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Darragh Ó Sé: I still think Dublin will win the All-Ireland

It’s impossible to see them losing to Kildare and then they just have two more games

I still think Dublin will win the All-Ireland. I don’t know if that’s suddenly a controversial opinion – maybe the heat is getting to me. But when I look around the championship and the eight teams left in it, I would still rather be sitting down to the table with Dessie Farrell’s hand than with anybody else’s.

Break it down to brass tacks. Dublin don’t have to beat the other seven teams, they only have to beat three of them. One of those three is Kildare in the Leinster final and with the best will in the world, it’s impossible to see them losing that. So that leaves them with two games to win another All-Ireland.

We can say they're vulnerable. We can say they've come back to the pack. We can say anything we like. But when it comes right down to it, who is going to beat them when it matters most? Of the teams that are left, I don't believe Kildare, Cork or Monaghan have the artillery to do it. So you're left with Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo and Galway.

The Connacht final will be the usual close-run thing but my money, for what it’s worth, will be on Galway. I was very critical of them here after they made such a mess of the closing stages against Monaghan in their league relegation match but I expect them to have learned from their mistakes that day.

That’s your only option after a disaster like that – sit down, break it down, use it the next time you’re in a tight spot. Well, Sunday in Croke Park is that tight spot. The one thing we can be fairly sure of is that the Connacht final will be a close affair going into the last 10 minutes.

I think Galway will come through it and the mess they made of that game in Clones will stand to them.

But can anyone see Galway then going on to beat Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final? I don't think it's really on the cards. When you call a spade a spade, Dublin just have better players. Even with all the retirements and the players who are out injured, they still have a core of James McCarthy, Jonny Cooper, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O'Callaghan, Niall Scully and Dean Rock.

No matter how many strides you think Galway have made under Pádraic Joyce, they don’t have enough to match that.

I always think the biggest threat to a dominant team is themselves. When you’re on the road a long time and you’ve been winning for most of it, you know who you are and you know what you can handle. Even if everybody else is improving, you generally have a fair idea of what’s required to beat your main challengers.

Change

The problem comes when you sleepwalk into a situation like Dublin did against Donegal in 2014. They played all that attacking football in 2013 in Jim Gavin’s first year and they went full steam ahead to do the same again all the way through 2014, except that Jim McGuinness had other ideas for them. They didn’t change their style and they left themselves open to being taken down. Donegal were only delighted to do it.

In the six years since then, they changed something every season to keep the challenge fresh. In 2015, it was all about making themselves solid in defence and never letting Donegal happen again. Plus, Fenton and John Small arrived. In 2016, they developed their way of attacking – everybody stretching wide, all those basketball moves to make space, Kilkenny dictating everything out around the middle.

The Dubs might be struggling to hit the heights that they once did but they're still out in front

In 2017, everything they had been building since the Donegal game came together when they dismantled Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final. O’Callaghan came on the scene as well to make them the complete package at both ends of the pitch.

The point I'm making is that Gavin set new challenges for them every year. New players came in, old superstars faded out of the picture. Scully, Brian Howard, Eoin Murchan. These fellas came in and were game-changers through the four-in-a-row and the five-in-a-row. There was no chance of anyone sleep-waking into disaster because they brought new challenges at every session and in every match.

And then, just when the whole thing might have been in danger of running out of gas, Jim Gavin leaves and Dessie Farrell arrives. Again, another new challenge for everybody. New terms and conditions. A new boss to impress. They didn't have to beat very much to win their All-Ireland last winter but that's neither here nor there. An All-Ireland is an All-Ireland and they all count the same.

So what about this year? Oddly enough, I think the fact that it hasn't been a straightforward task for Farrell and his squad is going to help them along the way. The Stephen Cluxton situation is a bit weird, really. Losing him and Paul Mannion and even a good solid citizen like Eric Lowndes doesn't suggest that everything is rosy in the garden there.

But tell me this – how many games have they lost? None. How many have they looked like losing? None. Kerry needed a penalty in injury-time to get a draw in Thurles in the league, remember. The Dubs might be struggling to hit the heights that they once did but they’re still out in front.

I can see the arguments, obviously. We can’t pretend that losing Cluxton is a small thing. It would be silly for me to spend the last decade going on in this column about how important he is to the Dubs and then to shrug it off when he disappears from view. Losing him has to bring them down a bit.

And even just watching them against Wexford and Meath, they don’t seem to have the spark they had in other years. When in doubt, they go back to this long, drawn-out possession game, moving the ball around for two minutes at a time before finding an opening. They’ve been doing that for a few years now – it isn’t any great evolution in their play.

But I keep coming back to what it’s going to take to beat them. It’s all very well saying they’re coming back to the pack or whatever. But even when they were in the pack, they were still incredibly hard to beat. That time they went on the long unbeaten run in league and championship a few years back, they found themselves in a heap of league games that could have gone either way and they always found a way not to lose them.

Togetherness

They hold themselves accountable. They have a togetherness that sees them through the tight spots. I was at a lunch just before the pandemic hit last year. It was a thing for St Vincent's and Brian Mullins was there as well. Fenton was at it too and I happened to be sitting beside him when we were eating.

He said something interesting, just as we were talking. He was getting a bit itchy at being there at all and said something to the effect that he hoped nobody told the other lads about it because they were playing Tyrone in the league the following night.

That was an insight for me into how they think – if Fenton of all people is worried about a lunch before a league game letting the side down, then how ravenous must the players coming up behind him have to be?

More than anything that’s why I still think they’re favourites for the All-Ireland. Even if there has been a bit of slippage, they still have the most important piece of the jigsaw. They still have the attitude, the knowledge and the mentality when it comes to finding their way through tight situations.

Matching the Dubs stride for stride is one thing. Actually being in front when the final whistle goes, that’s another problem altogether. Go back to McCarthy and Fenton and Kilkenny and O’Callaghan and Howard and all these guys. They have an honours degree in winning. They get over the line, by hook or by crook.

Of all the teams that are left, Kerry are best placed to chase them down. Unlike Dublin, Kerry are evolving. They’re playing a different style now than they did last year. I wasn’t one of those who blamed the defensive set-up for what happened against Cork last November but they’ve obviously taken it to heart and gone the other way. The road gets steeper from this Sunday on so it will be interesting to see how it works for them.

Paudie Clifford looks to be a huge addition to that forward line. He's mad for work, he loves a bit of contact and doesn't mind getting his hands dirty. But there's plenty of football in him too. You love a fella like that in your team – I'd say Seán O'Shea and David Clifford keep him in their prayers at night.

But will it all be enough to beat the Dubs if they meet in an All-Ireland final? You can’t rule it out but I wouldn’t be bullish about it from a Kerry point of view. I still worry about the Kerry defence. I worry about the fact that they’ve conceded a goal in every match this year except the non-event against Galway. I’m still not convinced that when it really comes down to it, they’ll be able to keep the Dubs to a manageable total.

I think Kerry are good enough to go all the way with Dublin. But beating them when the temperature is high and the fat is in the fire? I’ll believe it when I see it.

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