Kevin McStay: No solution in sight to countering Dublin's dominance
They are not just hammering other teams, they are beating the bookies
Roscommon’s Conor Daly fouls Con O’Callaghan of Dublin and is red-carded during their quarter-final phase 2 match at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
It is the hope that kills you – or so they say. But what happens when you travel with no hope?
That fate befell Roscommon on Saturday, and the vast majority of counties will experience the same sense of dread and resignation if and when they play Dublin in Croke Park in the seasons to come.
I met a few of the players in a coffee shop in Roscommon on Saturday morning and wished them luck. I had no sense they were travelling with every conviction and hope in their heart of winning that game. How could they?
Once the game started it was obvious that Roscommon were in a holding position: they were playing for respectability and to try and stay competitive. A year ago we lost by 14 points. I was suspended for that match, but I still suffered watching the Dublin second-string team essentially rip our boys apart. We also used that game to give guys with potential a start, so we didn’t have our strongest unit out either. But we were still very well beaten.
This year, under Anthony Cunningham, they put a big emphasis on strength and conditioning and on defensive organisation. They beat Mayo in Castlebar and Galway in Salthill. They won Connacht. They did so much right.
And then they get beaten by 18 points.
So after all the effort that Anthony and the boys put in, they come out onto this fast pitch – and Croke Park is an unforgiving fast surface – and they face this blue deluge of attacking football.
The conversation was could Roscommon keep it to single digits? As it turned out, they couldn’t – even with Jim Gavin retiring Ciarán Kilkenny, Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan early.
Dublin beat the spread all the time now. They are not just beating other teams; they are beating the bookies, the shrewdest team of the lot.
So after 15 minutes there was complete acceptance and resignation that this game was only going one way. Roscommon followers were there merely to see their colours, their county’s best, on the pitch in Croke Park.
What is it that Dublin have that enable them to just leave other decent teams in their slipstream?
It is the strength and conditioning, obviously. It is their experience. They have incredible athleticism. And they have better footballers.
To play for this Dublin group you are not coming in unless you have that combination of athletic prowess and football acumen. And you aren’t getting on the field until all the boxes are ticked. That is Dublin in a nutshell.
Their decision-making, even against heavily-organised defensive teams, is first rate. They seem to carry an absolute belief in their ability. O’Callaghan took a ball the last day and he should have broken his ankle in five different places when he landed. But he has this elasticity and supple strength that enabled him to get up and face the goals within seconds.
How can an opposition team legislate for that?
Originally Dublin were a little bit selfish in their finishing in front of goal. That’s no longer true. They have worked on that in recent seasons. Now they can take the goalkeeper out of the equation with fast hands and interchanging and find the free man at the weak side of the goal.
They are also getting men out in front of the defender – both Mannion and O’Callaghan were conspicuous in this regard on Saturday.
Then Dean Rock steps into the team and hits 1-11. Frees on his wrong side are almost a given: it is uncanny for a right-footed free-taker to be so accomplished on that wrong side. His is a gold-standard execution.
So I believe they have improved, and that they have a bigger pick of players now. The one position where they can’t replace like-for-like is the goalkeeper. Evan Comerford hasn’t had much opportunity to shine yet.
The Diarmuid Connolly issue has been laid to rest now. They seem to have no injury worries. So the team is in perfect shape at the critical juncture of the season: three games out from a fifth All-Ireland in succession. And it is going to take some effort to beat them.
So Dublin are on a pedestal. The quality of play produced by Kerry and Donegal confirmed them as the main threats along with Tyrone. Mayo are still alive.
For me the only area that brings Dublin back into the pack is their defence. The narrative on Sunday was that both Kerry and Donegal are open defensively. But the fact is Dublin also have a significant issue in their defence. It is never exposed because they score so much at the other end.
But Jonny Cooper is critical to them. Cian O’Sullivan didn’t make the team on Saturday evening, which was interesting. They need James McCarthy at midfield but would love to have him at wing-back. You just have to look at the kind of scores they give away to the opposition. They give away score totals that would win other matches. Yet they completely pummel teams on the scoreboard themselves so this is masked.
It is not really given a thorough analysis, but the fact is they don’t have the greatest defence of all time. Probably the best defensive unit left in the All-Ireland championship belongs to Tyrone.
However, Dublin’s offensive flow is so appealing and overwhelming that teams don’t get enough opportunity to exploit their defensive frailty. Dublin are on a par with Kerry in terms of attacking movement. They empty out pockets, go on dummy runs. They will make 50-metre runs just to get a short kickout – and often won’t get the ball at all. Sooner or later the tracker gets tired and switches off, and then the openings come. After that, as happened to Roscommon, the floodgates open.
So is this the new reality of playing Dublin?
Some weeks ago we had a big debate in RTÉ. Ciaran Whelan correctly took the angle that while most GAA followers relate this current team to the €18 million investment that was given to the county board, in fact, those players are just beginning to emerge now. Bernard Brogan and his generation had already left school when this period of investment started.
Look at Dublin U-20s this year and the score lines that they are putting up. Ciaran Archer would seem to be at the forefront of a cadre of players who will emerge in the next four or five years and they will come into a stable, winning environment. They will serve their apprenticeship and bide their time.
Dublin will continue to pulverise teams in Leinster. And their ongoing strength means that other leading teams will have to continue to murder themselves just to compete. Donegal, for instance, have made huge efforts to drive their internal game. Can they maintain it? For how long? Michael Murphy is magnificent, but he can’t play forever.
If there is any hope for the chasing pack it may be if Jim Gavin steps aside and the structure and processes he has implemented might be disrupted. There may be a small window of opportunity in that.
And that’s almost clutching at straws because sooner or later Dublin will identify an excellent replacement candidate and will bring through complete players that we haven’t heard of.
Brian Howard and Eoin Murchan just came into the senior team as the fully achieved thing. It seemed like these guys walked in off the street but, of course, they didn’t. And there are many more like them waiting in the wings.
There is no sense that we can legislate to divide and conquer Dublin. And if it seems that Dublin are unbeatable, then that will gravely hurt the efforts people across the country are willing to make to keep the game thriving in their county.
Players may look at the landscape and decide there is no All-Ireland – or province – for them, and that they would be better taking a year travelling or concentrating on their careers.
So the other leading counties need to ensure that they are operating at a premium commercially and structurally and competitively – on the field and in the offices. Kerry and Tyrone have their houses in order. Donegal have made huge strides. Mayo, Galway and Roscommon have just started that process.
If counties of that scale had someone of John Costello’s ability wouldn’t they thrive? I think both Mayo and Galway, for instance, have the population and diaspora to sustain a CEO for their respective counties. Are there people of his ability within both counties? Of course there are.
The ironic thing is that if Dublin hadn’t made this metamorphosis into such a frighteningly strong commercial and athletic force this would be heralded as a golden age for the game. Kerry and Donegal played All-Ireland-winning calibre football in a classic on Sunday. Tyrone are lurking. Mayo are amassing for one of their heroic last stands.
If Dublin were just extremely good rather than this omnipotent force, then this year’s All-Ireland would be wonderful.
Instead a vague sense of hopelessness is hanging over the thing. The last time I felt like this was when I was an emerging player in the early 1980s and it was all about Dublin and Kerry. We were just waiting for Kerry to get old and go away – and that took a long time.
I don’t have any sense that Dublin are ever going away again. It points to very difficult times for every other county in Ireland for many years to come. And the solution is not at all obvious.