And so to the last game of the Super 8s. Or, as Dublin chose to use it last year, the day when the end-of-year medal order gets bulked out. A chance for the understudies in Jim Gavin’s extended panel to stride centre stage and send the headline acts to the wings for a bit.
The game against Roscommon on this weekend in 2018 saw the only snatches of game-time all summer for Conor Mullally, Mark Schutte, Paddy Small, Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O'Gara and Andrew McGowan.
It was the only start of the year for Darren Daly, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Colm Basquel and Cormac Costello. Bit-part players of varying hues, the 11 of them alone scored 3-19 between them that day, all but 0-4 of it from play. A sign of the indecently good health of the team behind the team that was carrying all before it.
But what of them this time around? The circumstances heading to play Tyrone tomorrow are different to last year’s Roscommon game in one significant respect – there is nominally something at stake for both sides in Omagh. Winner tops the group, loser comes second.
As a consequence, you’d imagine Gavin won’t be quite so scattershot with his munitions here. But with an All-Ireland semi-final down for decision six days later, he will presumably want to lighten the load somewhat on a few of the regulars.
He has in the past when the opportunity arose. Gavin's use of his resources has been uncannily similar this year to what it was at the equivalent stage in 2018. In five games so far this summer, a core group of 10 Dublin players have started every game. It was nine after the first five games last year but presumably would have been 10 had Stephen Cluxton not had to sit out the Leinster final.
All nine of the ever-presents were rested against Roscommon – and eight of them didn’t see a minute of action. Only James McCarthy played any part that day, coming off the bench for Jack McCaffrey at half-time.
A measure of just where Gavin sees the stakes tomorrow will be how many of this year's 10 he presses into action. For the record, they are: Cluxton, Mick Fitzsimons, McCaffrey, John Small, Brian Fenton, Brian Howard, Ciarán Kilkenny, Niall Scully, Con O'Callaghan and Paul Mannion.
There have been 19 different starters this time around, as opposed to 20 last year – again, Evan Comerford’s only championship start filling in for Cluxton in that Leinster final accounts for the discrepancy. And when it comes to the overall total of players used, the numbers are just as close – 26 this year, 27 last year.
The one figure where there seems to be a comparatively big gap between the two seasons is in the number of players who’ve been involved in every game – this summer it’s 15 whereas this time last year it was only 12. This could, of course, be complete happenstance. But equally, it could point to a certain narrowing of what Gavin considers to be his most trusted group as they set out for a summit no team in the GAA has ever reached before.
A few stray observations would seem to bear this out. For a start, this is the first summer in the past five seasons which hasn’t seen a new player cement his place in the Dublin starting team. A feature of each new title assault has been fresh blood in the side, not just nibbling around the edges but getting in and staying in.
Some had made subs' appearances before, some hadn't. But all became mainstays in the space of a season, seemingly learning on the job and dead-wooding the more established names ahead of them. In 2015, it was Fenton. In 2016, it was John Small. O'Callaghan and Scully forced their way in in 2017, while Howard and Eoin Murchan were last year's additions.
There has been no equivalent in 2019. Indeed Murchan appears to have lost his place in the queue, with Davy Byrne leapfrogging him and featuring in every game so far.
Darren Gavin was widely touted as the coming man after a good spell towards the end of the league and he started the opener against Louth. But despite coming on against Kildare, he got injured soon after and hasn't been in a match-day panel since.
Costello wasn’t new by any means but for all the sparkle of his occasional cameos down through the years, this was the first time he’d managed to put a string of four starting appearances back-to-back. Unfortunately for him, a shaky night against Cork looks to have seen him play his way out of the side, with Dean Rock back in harness for the foreseeable future.
As a consequence – and for the first time since Gavin took over at the beginning of the 2013 season – the average age of his starting team has begun to rise sharply. The greatest trick of the Gavin era was to build a repeatedly dominant side that got younger year-on-year. But not this year.
The starting 15 that beat Kerry in 2015 in the first final of the run had an average age of 26.7. Through constant refreshment season on season, that number has kept falling, down to 26.2 for each of the last two All-Ireland finals.
To win four titles back-to-back is obviously incredible. For the team that won the fourth of them to be half a year younger on average than the team that won the first is unprecedented.
The great Kerry team aged almost exactly four years on average between 1978 and 1981, for instance. Fourteen of the 15 who started the first final also started the fourth – the only change being Tommy Doyle for Pat Spillane. Doyle is four months younger so it brought the average age down by a matter of tiny decimals. But Dublin were able to shave huge chunks off each year to keep the average down.
This season, however, the pattern has shifted. The average age of the team that beat Roscommon a fortnight ago was 27.7. Brian Howard was the only player under 25 in the side. The Cork game the previous week was the first time Gavin has ever fielded a championship team with five players aged 30 or over.
In the normal run of events, of course, none of this would be considered remarkable. Teams age. Great teams in particular age together. Any team going for five-in-a-row in any sport definitely should be older coming towards the end of it than they were at the start. It’s just that under Gavin, Dublin had consistently managed to cheat gravity up to now. For the first time in seven seasons, it looks to have caught up with them a bit.
Moreover, with the shining exception of Paddy Small, the contribution from the bench doesn't look as threatening as in other years. Small is the only substitute to have been used in every game so far, scoring 0-5 from play. The majority of the other scores off the bench have come from established starters – Rock has brought 0-9 in with him, Michael Darragh Macauley and Philly McMahon plundered a goal each off the bench in the Louth game. All three are likely to start the All-Ireland semi-final next weekend.
The ghosts of subs’ benches past have been curiously quiet this time around. Nobody has scored more off the bench over the course of Dublin’s five-in-a-row seasons than Kevin McManamon – he has 3-7 to his name as a sub since the start of 2015. But only two points of that total has come this season, one of them a late free against Louth. Paddy Andrews’s contribution has been a single point against Meath.
O’Gara has made the match-day 26 four times this summer without seeing a minute of game time. Brogan was on the panel last day out against Roscommon but sat for the duration as well. Seán Bugler came on for the last seven minutes against Louth but hasn’t seen a minute since. Conor McHugh and Robbie McDaid were both in the match programme that day too but haven’t been in the 26 in any of the four matches that have followed.
Dublin’s other new player this year has been another old one. After Small and McManamon, the Dub sub with the third highest minutes off the bench this summer has been Rory O’Carroll. He has come on in four of the five games, adding to the sense that Gavin’s instinct has increasingly been to go with what has worked in the past rather than force something new with the ultimate prize so close.
Churn and flux
In this context, the more you drill down into it, the more sense it makes that Diarmuid Connolly has been brought back into the mix. It is of a piece with Gavin's thinking, personnel-wise, throughout the 2019 championship.
Dublin have gradually gone back to what they know has worked for them before. The fact that Connolly and O’Carroll have been the main additions to the panel – both of them a decade and more after they made their championship debuts – feels significant.
In consistently turning towards the familiar, Gavin and his management have moved away from the churn and flux that were such a feature of the four-in-a-row. Tomorrow in Omagh doesn’t really matter a damn but if he starts a large chunk of his core 10 again it will be another departure from what they’ve done before.
Maybe it’s all coincidental and maybe we’re reading too much into the natural pull and push of team selection based on training performance. But the approach undeniably looks different this time around. If you were suspicious, you’d ponder whether it was the action of a management team looking towards the door after September.
One way or the other, the next month will be a defining one for them all.