Hindsight is everything but there may have been times over the usual winter ruminations when Jim Gavin and his Dublin players must have wondered if winning last year's National League did them any favours.
It was almost a year ago to the day – April 27th – when they demolished Derry in the league decider, pulling up on a scoreline of 3-19 to 1-10. That emphatic closing performance of their spring programme came hot on the heels of their remarkable turnaround against Cork a fortnight earlier, when they alchemised a 2-9 to 0-7 half-time deficit into a 2-20 to 2-13 win.
Over the course of that fortnight, the idea that this Dublin team may be somehow unbeatable began to take hold. It had nothing to do with anything Gavin or his players said and certainly wasn’t a notion the manager would have encouraged.
Brian Cody used to turn positively voodoo during the years when Kilkenny were perceived as unbeatable, almost paling one afternoon in Nowlan Park when a journalist breezily asked him if the second best team in Ireland was, in fact, the Kilkenny substitutes.
Nobody wants the tag of invincibility. But it was hard not to attribute it to Dublin a year ago.
On RTÉ radio that afternoon, the sense of trepidation and awe from those watching on was easily discernible. Dublin were the reigning All-Ireland champions and were preparing to accept their fourth national title in 12 months. They had swatted Derry – easily the most consistent league performers – despite not fielding their most experienced team.
“Jim Gavin speaks about continuity and players performing and he rewards guys when they play well. Today they just blew Derry out of the water. They were tactically fantastic and well set up and everybody knows their job, and their technical ability to be able to execute foot passes and hand passes means that it is top quality,” said Eamon O’Hara, the former Sligo All-Star and current RTÉ panelist.
“They are doing 60- or 70-yard runs and they are going flat out and you can find a corner back or a corner forward on any part of the pitch. They have got an unbelievable level of talent and if they continue to improve, I don’t see a team at this present moment to match them.”
Beside him, Jack O’Connor of Kerry found it equally difficult to look past a championship season ending in more Dublin success but he did sound one note of caution which would prove prophetic.
“One thing you would say is that Dublin do cough up goal chances. Even today, Derry had three or four chances. They do play a bit open at the back and left two Derry inside players with 60 yards of green grass in front of them. Look, it is hard to see anyone getting close to them but they do leak goals at the back. They play almost with a bit of arrogance. They don’t put spare men back in front of the forwards and you might just catch them on a one-off. But at this point in time it is hard to see anyone catching them.”
A year later, what has changed about Dublin? It is no major surprise that they are back in a league final, even if they have arrived at this point without appearing quite as engaged with the league as they have in other years. They lost against Cork and Kerry, drew against Tyrone and were involved in a low-scoring match at home to Derry which was interpreted by many as the nadir, the death of football – despite the fact that it was lashing rain all night.
If there was little sign of the staggering show of attacking prowess of a year ago, there seemed to be as little interest in achieving that either. Dublin know that they can play attacking football; they know they can score. The chief challenge over the spring was learning how to play through the congested defensive systems which they can be certain of encountering this summer.
Testy Saturday night
Their other concern must involve making sure that what happened against Donegal last August does not happen again. They conceded three goals that afternoon. It might as easily have been five.
When the two counties met again in Croke Park for what was a testy Saturday night game in February, John Small started at centre back for the second week running. The Ballymun player is emblematic of just how difficult it can be for a young player to make enough of an impression to break into the first team. His route to senior football was immaculate: Dublin minor All-Ireland finalist in 2011, under-21 winner a year later and a senior debut under Pat Gilroy against Carlow in January 2012. But the following season, he was unable to claim his place on the Kickhams senior team, going back in order to go forward.
Against Donegal, he looked at home at centre back: physically commanding, aggressive, positive and comfortable on the ball. When Dublin won the league final a year ago, Nicky Devereux lined out at number six. Ger Brennan, a constant fixture in that position in the Gilroy era, was absent with injury last season and involved with St Vincent's in the club competition until February. He has yet to line out in Dublin colours this year and it remains to be seen whether the selectors will spring him for the championship.
The one constant theme of Gavin’s tenure is that form is rewarded. Small responded to the show of faith by turning in a man-of-the-match performance against Donegal.
Eoin Culligan of Kilmacud also got significant game time at right corner back during the league. Perhaps the most significant trend of the league teams picked by Gavin has been the sustained selection of Dean Rock, whose habitual place amongst the substitutes in the past was the most glaring manifestation of the talent-depth within the squad.
Rock is 25 now and got his first league start for Dublin in Páirc Uí Rinn, when he struck four from play in a 0-8 haul. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know what he could do – he came off the bench to land the two points which sealed the 2013 league final against Tyrone.
It was just that there were only six places available and at least 10 forwards vying for a start. Rock also stepped up against Tyrone this year, rescuing a frustrating evening in Croke Park by palming home a late goal which give Dublin a share of the spoils. That 1-9 to 0-12 scoreline was the product of a match in which Mickey Harte sent out a team in swamping, harassing defensive mode. They came close to pulling off a big win in Croke Park.
“When there are so many guys behind the ball, our guys just have to be patient and I thought they were patient,” Gavin said afterwards.
Rock finished the goal but the man who made it was Eoghan O’Gara, hunting down a ball off the post and then turning two Tyrone defenders inside out with a surprising quick switch of direction. The head was up straightaway looking for an available inlet pass. O’Gara, too, has felt the icier regions of the Dublin bench but he has become a dramatically improved player under Gavin and the cruciate injury, suffered on March 22nd, that rules him out for the season, is one of the significant shifts of the season for Dublin. They were able to ship the absence of Ciarán Kilkenny to a similar injury but big, imposing, athletic and aggressive ball-winning full forwards are the one type of player Dublin do not have in abundance.
Centre back and full forward become the two most available roles as the summer looms. When Dublin beat Derry last year, Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O’Sullivan was the midfield pairing, as they were against Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Throughout the league
has used the liberal game time given to him to great effect and has been one of Dublin’s stand-out players of the season, not just for his presence but for an unstinting work ethic which has seen him involved at both ends of the pitch. That was in keeping with the collective attitude.
When Dublin beat Monaghan on Easter Sunday in Clones, Gavin fielded questions for six minutes and noted that his team had kept the Ulster side scoreless for "22 or 23 minutes". It was an offhand observation but it stood out because closing teams down never seemed like a huge priority for Dublin. It never had to be. That may have changed this season.
In the early season, Gavin had his squad working mainly indoors. Mark Ingle, the Killester basketball coach, was called in to do some work with the players as Gavin sought ways to improve off-the-mark speed and movement. They still move the ball through the lines with frightening speed but have been busting a gut to cover defensive holes this year as well.
Last year’s championship was a painful lesson in the consequences of all-out flamboyance. Jack O’Connor called it right after the league final without knowing which team would hurt Dublin with goals – or when.
In this league, there have been signs Dublin have a few key positions to nail down but more importantly that they are unwilling to leave themselves open to the kind of lightning raid carried out by Donegal last summer. This year, they can’t afford to be quite so carefree. They might well claim their third league title in a row tomorrow but, this time, the predictions will be more muted.
Nobody will be happier about that than Jim Gavin.