As Dublin stroll to another final, when will the GAA say the system is broken?

Dublin will say margins are close but the sheer scale of population says otherwise

Dublin’s Robbie McDaid celebrates scoring his side’s goal during the semi-final win over Cavan. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Dublin’s Robbie McDaid celebrates scoring his side’s goal during the semi-final win over Cavan. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Jim McGuinness made the point on Sky on Saturday evening that had Dublin not lost the 2014 All-Ireland they’d now be on eight-in-a-row. He didn’t develop the point that his Donegal team’s coup in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final had provided Jim Gavin and his management team with the epiphany that would see Dublin evolve into an unprecedented force.

Coach Declan Darcy became so obsessed with the defensive shortcomings of the defeat that he stuck the total conceded, 3-14 up on his laptop.

One of the outcomes was a more structured game plan and a deeper defensive sensibility. The trademark possession game, devised to counter blanket defence by going backwards to reconfigure an attack if it was threatened by a cul de sac or turnover and the stretching of the opposition with players hugging the sideline were on view in the weekend’s All-Ireland semi-final.

It means that if a team manages, as Cavan did in the second half, to regain possession from one of these power plays without conceding a score it becomes a matter of celebration.

It’s not patronising the Ulster champions in saying that they did well in the circumstances, showing commitment and dedication in competing and getting in blocks but they were never going to be able to achieve what was necessary at both ends to end up with a total that might threaten what they would concede.

But it’s not simply structure or process. In an interview with The Irish Times on Saturday, Michael Dempsey, who spent 15 years as coach and member of Brian Cody’s Kilkenny management, identified another key element that doesn’t lend itself to sports science and metrics.

“Dublin are the best example in any sport that I’ve seen of players being totally empowered to go out and get the best out of themselves and problem-solve as they go. They’re exceptional but illustrate how it’s pointless to get carried away with one aspect of the mix.”

In the context of having reached a sixth successive All-Ireland final for the first time since 1979, a sequence with a 50 per cent success rate for Kevin Heffernan’s teams – as opposed to their successors’ 100 per cent record to date – the widespread concern about the competitive future of the championship is understandable.

Dublin protest, as manager Dessie Farrell did on Saturday, that the county’s winning margins in finals is extraordinarily tight - on average 2.7 points over seven All-Irelands not counting two replays. The problem with that is that sustained success creates its own trend and, to further that, the last two years have produced the biggest margins plus uncompetitive semi-finals.

It happens every time a county achieves serial success. The canary in the coalmine is All-Ireland attendance. Kerry’s four-in-a-row sequence culminated in the 1981 final which didn’t attract a capacity attendance. After Kilkenny wiped the floor with Waterford in the 2008 All-Ireland, Croke Park officials privately acknowledged concerns that the same would happen in hurling but the rise of Tipperary arrested the trend.

Dublin’s 2018 All-Ireland with Tyrone didn’t sell out and although this was not officially acknowledged, the weight of anecdotal evidence of empty seats in different areas of the stadium suggested otherwise.

Cavan’s Stephen Murray, Martin Reilly, Ciaran Brady leave the pitch after becoming the latest team to feel the wrath of Dublin. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Cavan’s Stephen Murray, Martin Reilly, Ciaran Brady leave the pitch after becoming the latest team to feel the wrath of Dublin. Photo: Bryan Keane/Inpho

There is also the historical fact that both football and hurling have all along had very restrictive rolls of honour.

It was veteran RTÉ analyst Colm O’Rourke who issued the sternest jeremiad on Saturday.

“Dublin’s dominance is not going to stop, not this year, nor next year. We could be looking at Dublin going for 10-in-a-row. This is a pattern. Dublin have created a monster which the GAA at central level need to decide what to do with.

“The sheer scale of numbers playing in Dublin is astonishing. Not only have they the numbers, the finance – they probably have the best players we have ever seen.”

His colleague, Tomás Ó Sé drew attention to the fact that of the Dublin team that broke through in 2011, just three – Stephen Cluxton, Michael Fitzsimons and James McCarthy – were starting against Cavan.

This is the strongest evidence that what we are seeing that it may not be simply an outstanding generation but rather, as O’Rourke said, a pattern or trend.

Presenter Joanne Cantwell said that the programme hoped to get someone from the GAA to talk about “their perspective”.

That would be instructive because the organisation is hardly unconcerned about the undermining of its main revenue source.

Yet indications have always been that Croke Park is also keen to continue the games development programme in Dublin, which has been so successful in raising the profile of the games in the state’s biggest population centre.

Various palliative measures have been advanced such as getting the county out of Croke Park for its league and championship fixtures up until the concluding stages of the All-Ireland, something that has bred a familiarity with the stadium that other counties can’t match.

The Strategic Review Committee in 2002 proposed a big national sponsorship deal rather than 32 local ones, which have tended to magnify the gap in resources between counties. The problem with all of these ideas is that they will result in revenue loss at a time when the GAA has seen its normal income streams dry up for nearly nine months with no end in sight.

The money argument about the county’s dominance has never been convincing because the issues of development funding and competitive imbalance have always been separate, as O’Rourke pointed out.

“I am not one of those people who feel we should cut Dublin’s finances - because that, to me, is not the answer. Those finances are going into schools, creating new players, new clubs.

“So, to me, the only answer for the future has to be dividing Dublin into three or four teams otherwise everyone else is wasting their time - and eventually someone is going to have to sit down and have a serious discussion about what we are going to do with Dublin.”

That serious discussion begins and ends with a population of 1.3 million, a county with as many people as a province and the sheer scale of playing numbers coming through as well as the commercial potential of so big a market.

Gaelic games may still be an amateur pursuit but the intercounty competitions, which are the mainstay of the GAA’s income, are increasingly organised on a professional basis with more matches and intensifying levels of preparation amongst the top counties.

This has seen county teams become less ‘representative’ in nature - playing a handful of fixtures spread over the summer – and more like club sides with regular and at times, weekly schedules.

At what point do the GAA declare the current system broken? Might they get away with a couple more years before deconstructing what has been the basis of the association for the past 135 years?

Their reluctance is understandable. Breaking up Dublin, first floated by 2002’s Strategic Review Committee, is a radical step given the centrality of county identity and the uncertain prospects of trying to forge entirely new allegiances.

In other words do they want a permanent solution to what they must still be hoping is a temporary problem?

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