Jim McGuinness: The Border rivalries are needed, especially in Leinster
Meath need to step up and create a challenge for Dublin, similar to what we have in Ulster
Dublin’s Vinny Murphy with Mick Lyons of Meath battle for the ball during the Leinster semi-final first replay in 1991. Photo: Inpho
It may be hard to hear it this weekend, but the pulse of the championship has started to quicken. And I find that I keep turning to the recent league final for signs and clues as to what might unfold this summer. It is my belief that the All-Ireland championship is only as strong as the rivalries it contains. The most obvious rivalry in this year’s championship is also the most storied.
In the lead-up to last summer’s All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Kerry, I read a lot of articles by, and about, Kerry legends and actually spoke with a few of them around Croke Park in the hours before the match. The view was remarkably consistent: an urgent, absolute sense that this was a match that they simply had to win.
It felt like Kerry football was in a new place and the fear that they might lose sight of Dublin was real. And they played well, but the win they coveted did not happen.
So that urgency, bordering on desperation, was in the back of my mind when I sat down to watch the league final. And over the 70 minutes Kerry were so impressive. Their young players dealt with the occasion. They played on the front foot. They set the tone and regardless of what Dublin did, they found a response.
Crucially, when Dublin came with their late surge, Kerry were equal to it. And it was a great game of football, too. The Kerry reaction to the victory was significant. I remember noting Liam Hassett running on and celebrating with one of the players. I doubt Liam ever celebrated any league win in which he contributed to as a player with as much enthusiasm. We have all seen Kerry win league finals when they walk over to one another and shake hands with one another. So I don’t believe it was a league title they were celebrating. It was beating Dublin.
Kerry have racked their brains and put their bodies on the line trying to meet this Dublin challenge since 2013 and, in the league final, they got there. It wasn’t that they did anything majorly different; they looked to play their brand and were conscientious in defence and were quite adventurous going forward. But they brought a sustained intensity facilitated by the younger players in their team – they could continue to make tackles and recover for 70-plus minutes and once they attacked, they did so with that distinctive Kerry know-how and accomplishment. They brought a physical edge, which was more than matched by Dublin. And crucially, they were winners when it was all over.
So what are the consequences of this?
There have been games over last year’s championship and in the league when Dublin looked vulnerable. But they have always been able to gather themselves and kick a composed score and ward off that threat – until the league final. So I would suggest that the ultimate consequence of that game is that the experience of losing will refocus Dublin.
I remember burning the midnight oil many a night studying Tyrone and thinking, at the back of my mind, that Mickey Harte was probably doing something similar
A defeat can expose things which otherwise would remain hidden until it is too late to rectify them. Jim Gavin will have his pencil sharpened. Dublin have not lost a championship game since 2014. The accumulative result of winning while sometimes playing brilliantly, and other times merely playing well, is that it is difficult to remain at one’s sharpest.
Dublin haven’t had a true rivalry at provincial level for over a decade. I always remember going to Dublin airport in July 1991. I had seen the first two Dublin-Meath games at home and I was heading to Boston to play football for the summer on the day of the second replay. And I could feel the city buzzing on the way out. Although I was excited, part of me wished I could go to Croke Park because that series transfixed the entire country in a way that was unprecedented. That kind of rivalry is sorely missing now in Leinster. And those livid border rivalries are needed within the GAA. Rivalries are what colour the championship and give it a voice.
In Ulster, for instance, we can all identify a tangle of rivalries with Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan providing the main threads just now. That matters. Managers and players are often subconsciously driven by other teams. That is the significance of rivalries. When Donegal were defending the Ulster title in 2012, we knew Tyrone would be coming for us. We had come from nowhere and blindsided them the previous summer. I remember burning the midnight oil many a night studying Tyrone and thinking, at the back of my mind, that Mickey Harte was probably doing something similar.
I have no idea whether he was or not. The point is that Mickey Harte kept me sharp. And the thought of Tyrone kept us sharp as a group. That is the stuff which top rivalries draw out. I suppose I see that all the time now in Glasgow with Celtic and Rangers. You observe what it means to both factions in the city and the feel on match days – the pressure, the intensity and even the security presence around an event with connotations of cultural and political and religious ideologies. It is a very tribal thing. In a different way, so was Meath and Dublin, at its peak.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo provide a spellbinding individual example of the power of rivalry. If the prime of their football lives didn’t overlap, would they have sustained such extraordinary levels of excellence? The old question of who is better provokes debate and favouritism. But there is no doubt that they provoke each other into being the best they can be. Just by existing, they guard against a culture of sliding into mediocrity or complacency. They set an exceptional standard for one another: that idea of you need the best you can be. And that is the importance of rivalries.
We were being questioned as people then: that we didn’t have the stomach for it
So that dynamic has been missing in Leinster and with due respect to Tipperary’s brilliant 2016 championship, it has been absent also in Munster since Cork went into retreat over the past two seasons. Whether Cork can reassert themselves is one of the intrigues of the summer.
What we saw in the league final was Kerry responding to the rival that now blots their sun out with a brilliant performance and a win which calmed the nerves across the Kingdom. The question nagging at the back of my mind concerns the timing of it. Last summer’s anxieties were not misplaced. Yes, Kerry’s need to beat Dublin had become acute. But was the league final the game in which they truly needed to beat them?
In 2013, when we in Donegal were going for three Ulster titles in a row, Monaghan took us down. That defeat shaped our view of the following season.
We played Monaghan again in the 2014 Division Two National League final. We had arranged to go on a training camp in Portugal a week before that final. We trained three times daily, came home and had two punishing sessions on the week of the league final. We never took our eye off what we wanted to achieve in the championship. We were being questioned as people then: that we didn’t have the stomach for it. And that generates something much deeper than winning a game of football.
I knew that winning the league final would be a very tall order. And I am not suggesting we threw the game, but our preparation was firmly fixed on championship because we knew that an Ulster summer meeting with Monaghan would define us as a group. Our squad had been written off by that stage: the general consensus was that the team had its All-Ireland and was in irreversible decline. So it felt like a huge summer to us. And we picked that fight and swallowed the league defeat. When it came to the Ulster final against Monaghan, we were ready. But it was not a nice feeling going down the road after that league final.
This is not to suggest that in winning the league, Kerry deviated from their championship preparation. Did Kerry have the luxury of not throwing everything at that league final? Personally, I don’t feel that they had to win this game. It’s not that winning the league is a negative result for Kerry. It is good for self-belief and for the young players and they are reportedly training extremely hard.
Mayo are dealing with well-advertised signs that Galway are coming back strong: they have a very good manager and are back in Division One
But the burning question revolves around the impact that it will have had on Dublin? What has Kerry’s win given to Dublin?
For me, the answer is surely renewed vigour and focus and attention. They went from winning on automatic to a very sudden and sharp taste of defeat. How does that feel? If it really hurts them, that can only be beneficial. They were vulnerable and were skirting on the edges of being caught and then Kerry did just that with a brilliant performance. So have Kerry jammed their foot in the door or can Dublin slam it shut and bolt it again?
Winning any All-Ireland introduces potential vulnerability in that all of a sudden the team is caught up in a euphoric, celebratory atmosphere and the sense of something having been completed: there are brilliant nights out, holidays, commercial opportunities for some players. Dublin have dealt with this brilliantly as a management and group since 2013. But this question must be in their minds: how long can we keep on winning? The league final was, for Dublin, a painful but valuable illustration of how quickly you can go from winning to not winning. And it recasts Kerry as a key rival and a threat to their exalted position.
So how will they respond? There has been a shift in Dublin’s style of play over the past year, from the high-octane patterns with third man runners flooding through and lightning ball movement, to a more considered, patient approach designed to break down teams who set up well defensively. They execute the new approach very well and draw teams out. But I am not 100 per cent convinced by it. I feel the other system is so hard to stop over 70 – or 80 – minutes. There is also a generation of brilliant Dublin players wondering how long they have left in that jersey? What sort of response will that provoke from them? So what game plan will they unveil this summer?
Strangely, for all of the talk of Dublin-Kerry, it is Mayo who have stood up as Dublin’s main adversary in their dominant period. They fully expect to be in the last four and indeed the final and have a rich core of experienced players. They don’t fear Dublin and seem to relish the games. The key difference is that they have not got over the line. Now, Mayo are dealing with well-advertised signs that Galway are coming back strong: they have a very good manager and are back in Division One.
I think the chief rivalries are already set for this summer. These rivalries, old and new, have the potential to shape this year’s championship. People want to see these titanic battles and enjoy the back stories and the thorny relationships and the prospect of revenge. It’s that feeling people have walking into a stadium that everything – that the whole year – is on the line over the course of a single afternoon and the cold reality that comes with it: it’s either us or them.