Kevin McStay: Dublin in Croke Park – is it about fairness or finance?

As I expected, there were no shocks in Round Four of the qualifiers, just the odd surprise

Dublin manager Jim Gavin and John Costello, chief executive of Dublin County Board, celebrating  All-Ireland victory in 2017. They are there to optimise conditions for Dublin. That’s their job, and they do it well. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dublin manager Jim Gavin and John Costello, chief executive of Dublin County Board, celebrating All-Ireland victory in 2017. They are there to optimise conditions for Dublin. That’s their job, and they do it well. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

We had the most significant 24 hours of the summer over the weekend. Football has gone from 12 counties to eight, with just one prize left on offer.

It’s a fascinating concept, the Super 8s, because it has become even more of a destination for counties than the old bank holiday quarter-finals. Some of the teams taking their places haven’t been planning to win the All-Ireland but just to get there, and see if they can develop to the next level.

There were, as I expected, no shocks in Round Four of the qualifiers, just the odd surprise – mainly the margin of Cork’s victory over Laois, which was impressive and confirms the county’s place as one of the top eight despite their relegation to Division Three in the league.

Meath had to fight their way out of Portlaoise on Sunday, and maybe they might have been expected to be a little more comfortable. Yet you couldn’t fault the commitment – like Pádraic Harnan winning that ball at the end and ploughing his way out of defence.

One issue that is unresolved is the potential suspension of Tyrone’s Peter Harte for picking up a third black card. You can only challenge these when you have accumulated a ban. I saw all three – against Donegal, Longford and Cavan – and would give him a good chance of successfully challenging at least one of them.

The decision on Saturday at the end of a comfortable win over Cavan, I think, will be struck down. The black card can be hard to adjudicate. Working out what’s deliberate is a very difficult call.

Harte’s problem for me is that he tends to lead the tackle with his foot, like in soccer. It’s bad technique, and I played with enough players who did the same thing. But is it cynical or deliberate? On Saturday it happened in garbage time of a match Tyrone were winning easily. I think he’ll be exonerated, and will play next week.

Good news

There has been an increase in the number of beaten provincial finalists qualifying, with both Meath and Cork making the cut this year. That is good news because these are two traditional football counties who have been down in the doldrums in recent years.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Cork football. For a long time they had a confidence and flamboyance to what they did – which they needed being next door to Kerry – and it’s good for football to see them making their way back to the top.

Since the Leinster final I have frequently made the point about Meath that the awful meltdown in the forwards was just one of those days, but their defending in the first half was exceptionally good. They went man-to-man with Dublin, and held them to 0-5 by quality defending rather than a structured system.

They have had a terrific year so far: gaining promotion to the top division for the first time in over a decade, reaching a Leinster final, and now the Super 8s. That would have been a very respectable to-do list at the start of the year.

It’s also great that Roscommon have returned, this time as provincial champions, because it makes the point that getting to the Super 8s can assist a county’s development.

On the flip side the provincial finalists who weren’t able to recover, Cavan and Galway, coming off demoralising defeats by Tyrone and Roscommon, bit the dust without getting anywhere near their best.

A much-fancied Galway, within a second half in Tyrone of reaching a second league final, saw their season end in early July, which was tremendously disappointing. It maintained what has become a trend of not stepping up to the next level when presented with the opportunity.

Big winner

Two major perspectives on the Super 8s are apparent to me before a ball is kicked. One, if Tyrone get a result against Roscommon – which is not a given because Roscommon are at home in the Hyde – we’re looking at the same final as last year because Tyrone will avoid Dublin in the semis.

The other big winner at the weekend was my own county Mayo, because they’re down for a Round Three match against Donegal in MacHale Park having played Meath in Croke Park a fortnight earlier. Things have dropped very nicely for Mayo, whereas Donegal, who have staked their claim as serious challengers so far, now have it all to do.

Mayo’s resurgence spells difficulty for Kerry too. If James Horan’s team get something down in Killarney they will leave Kerry going to Croke Park to face Donegal with everything on the line.

We’re only in the second year of the round robin but one trend from last year that’s worth considering is that if you lose your first game you’re in trouble. In 2018 none of the teams that lost on the first weekend made it out of their groups; Kerry, Kildare, Donegal and Roscommon all fell by the wayside.

It’s also moving time for Dublin. At the start of the year the five-in-a-row was supposedly inevitable but now there are five matches to negotiate if Jim Gavin is going to get them there, and history, remember, is against them. There has to be a reason that this feat has not been achieved before.

Kerry are obviously the only ones I remember going for five-in-a-row, and they were able to come back from one of the greatest shocks – losing to an Offaly team that were 5/1 for the final – and then win another three-in-a-row from 1984 to 1986, but they couldn’t make history in 1982.

It’s the same with Dublin. They’re not going away anytime soon, but does that guarantee them the five-in-a-row this year?

The Super 8s make it unlikely that Dublin will be tripped up before the All-Ireland semi-finals, but the next few weeks will tell us a lot about the teams who are going to pose the biggest challenge.

Number of angles

I’ve seen this from a number of angles, managing a team that won Connacht and qualified for the old knock-out quarter-finals and 12 months later winning through the qualifiers to reach the Super 8s in their first year. As a player I was part of teams that won the province and got straight into the All-Ireland semi-finals.

I was saying last week that you need to be careful what you wish for. You go into the last eight on the back of good results but you can end up getting walloped.

As Roscommon manager last year it was obviously demoralising to pick up heavy beatings in Croke Park. Yet we were competitive in the home game with Donegal, and our 2-16 against Dublin was the highest score put up against them in last year’s Championship. Small encouragements, but they were built on this year.

I have a question for the counties in the last eight: when Donegal brought motion 39 to last February’s congress how did you vote? We have an idea about certain counties, but not others.

Is it fair that Dublin can nominate Croke Park as a home venue? This is a hard topic to put out there because it’s immediately seen as being anti-Dublin, and yet no one can blame the county’s players or management for this particular situation.

They are my favourite team after my own counties of Mayo and Roscommon. I love watching them play, and I’m a huge admirer of what they are, arguably the greatest collective team of all time. They have been magnificent this decade, a time when football has been complex and intense.

John Costello and Jim Gavin are there to optimise conditions for Dublin. That’s their job, and they do it well.

My argument is directed at the GAA and its leaders. Their job is to ensure fairness across the board for all counties and all provinces. In my view that is not happening.

Motion 39 came down to fairness or finance. It ruled out Croke Park as a home venue for any team in the Championship and, of course, that was directed at Dublin. No one has an issue with it as a neutral venue for the traditional games between provincial champions and for the later stages of the All-Ireland.

People ask where would Dublin go? That’s a matter for Dublin. If Parnell Park is too small go to one of the other Leinster grounds.

I thought for Costello to call it a divisive motion didn’t make sense because every debate that isn’t unanimous is divisive. Croke Park is such an obvious advantage to a team that plays virtually all of its big matches at the venue. The motions was spectacularly defeated – 64 per cent against – but the issues raised won’t go away.

I would be interested to know how counties like Cork, Mayo, Tyrone, etc voted. At a time when county managers are looking for every inch or millimetre to get the best out of their teams and in an attempt to get closer to Dublin, here you have counties who are in this year’s Super 8 actually voting to leave an unfair advantage with Dublin.

Insensitive

Former president Seán Kelly said at congress: “Anyone who wants to beat the Dubs should aspire to do so in Croke Park. That’s certainly what we aspire to do in Kerry as we bid to stop the drive for five.”

To me that was a fairly insensitive dismissal of counties that don’t have Kerry’s advantages of historic success and familiarity with Croke Park, as well as a healthy balance sheet against Dublin.

As someone who played and managed there I also think it’s nonsense. Try taking on Dublin in Croke Park when you have a young team developing, and you’re on the sideline watching them getting taken apart by opposition who are completely practised in the venue, and you wouldn’t be fussy about where you compete with them, never mind beat them.

Ask Cork whether they think Croke Park is the only place to try to beat Dublin and ask them again after next weekend.

I framed the question about fairness or finance, and it’s up to anyone interested to make that call for themselves.

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