What now for Dublin as their dominance comes to an end?

Mick Fitzsimons and Philly McMahon are the only members of the Dublin panel over 31

It’s only right that everyone should pause and recognise what this Dublin has achieved. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

It’s only right that everyone should pause and recognise what this Dublin has achieved. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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On one level, there is very obviously no crisis to be declared in Dublin football. Of the players who featured against Mayo on Saturday night, 14 were experiencing their first ever defeat in a championship game. If you think this is a problem, then your wallet is likely too small for your 50s and your diamond shoes are too tight.

Of their core lieutenants, only James McCarthy, Mick Fitzsimons, Dean Rock and Jonny Cooper are over 30. Fitzsimons and Philly McMahon are the only members of the whole panel over 31. If you were building a team for a tilt at the 2022 All-Ireland, there are infinitely worse places to be starting from.

And before they tumble headlong into a future that guarantees nothing but promises plenty, it’s only right that everyone should pause and recognise what they achieved. The only six-in-a-row by a men’s team in the history of the GAA. The only five-in-a-row, come to that. A run of 45 games unbeaten stretching across six and a half seasons. And even in the end, when they were a shadow of themselves, it still took extra-time to beat them.

Yet nobody who has watched them through this championship can be in any way surprised that this is how it ended. The signs were there all the way along. They were there in how they looked so listless against Wexford, in how Meath kept them scoreless for 27 minutes, in how Kildare outgoaled them in the Leinster final, the first time that had happened to them since 2001.

For long spells of the first half against Mayo, their players showed that they have a greater grasp of the fundamental skills of the game than the opposition

This was their third goalless game of the summer. That hasn’t happened since 2007. Back when men were men and the Dubs could be relied upon to go so far and no further. They lost to Kerry that year, like they always did. This defeat doesn’t set them back to those days but it does mean the winter is likely to bring about a fairly stern rethink of who they are and how they go about things.

“We’re always in a state of transition,” Dessie Farrell said on Saturday night. “Players come and go and that’s been the case. There’s been a significant amount of that over the last two seasons. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next season. I’m sure some individuals will reflect on where they’re at and can they go again.

New blood

“It’s not easy to keep going to the well. That will be a decision for some individuals. There’s a lot of new blood in there as well that need time and need exposure and I’m sure there’s a lot of fellas who will be looking forward to getting that kind of time in the national league whenever that comes around.”

Dublin’s Colm Basquel misses a goal chance. Dessie Farrell’s team failed to score a goal in normal or extra time. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Dublin’s Colm Basquel misses a goal chance. Dessie Farrell’s team failed to score a goal in normal or extra time. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

All is clearly not lost for Dublin. For long spells of the first half against Mayo, their players showed that they have a greater grasp of the fundamental skills of the game than the opposition. The contrast between the composed, pristine point-taking of Ciaran Kilkenny and Dean Rock with the hurried, raggedy shooting of Aidan O’Shea and Tommy Conroy at the other end was stark.

And when Mayo stood off them - “only pressing up in ones rather than in twos and threes”, as James Horan put it afterwards - the Dubs were able to keep the ball and circulate it with impressive cohesion and ease. Both of Kilkenny’s first-half points came this way, at the end of long spells of possession.

It has become Dublin’s signature move. So much so that you’d half wonder if their smarter opponents are happy enough just to let them at it now. After all, if Dublin are on top for three minutes and they spend it all in the pursuit of just a single point, isn’t that better than them trying to score 1-2 off it? Like they used to?

Nobody has seen all this up close more often or to more chilling effect than Mayo, of course. It’s only two years since they went from two points up to eight points down in the space of 12 minutes against Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final. The way Dublin play now, that sort of blitzkrieg just isn’t something they go after.

They went through the 2021 championship playing seven goalless halves of football plus two goalless periods of extra-time. They’ve stopped doing the right thing under pressure in front of goal. Their two goal chances on Saturday night were butchered by blinkered shooting, with Colm Basquel in normal time and Cormac Costello in extra-time looking for glory instead of laying off the last pass for an easy finish for a teammate.

The Dublin that won six in a row had long since erased that sort of nonsense from their game.

On their worst day, they can’t really fall out of the top three or four in the country. Cry them no rivers

And of course, the biggest change from the glory days is the complete lack of impetus from the bench. For the third time in four games, Dublin’s substitutes were outscored by the opposition’s. In the whole of the 2021 championship, they have sourced a grand total of 0-5 from their replacements. The days of inter-county quality arriving fully formed on the Dublin panel seem to be over, for now at least.

They will come again, naturally enough. The dice are loaded too heavily in Dublin’s favour for them not to. On their worst day, they can’t really fall out of the top three or four in the country. Cry them no rivers.

But they have things to address now. The Stephen Cluxton situation needs to be clarified and brought to a conclusion one way or the other before the winter is out. Phone calls to Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion will have to be made, whatever their hope of success.

Farrell and his backroom team will presumably be fine to carry on into 2022 but you wouldn’t be betting a lot on 2023 if next year ends the way this year did. New faces aren’t as crucial to the enterprise as a new way of playing.

“Dublin supporters, by and large, still remember when there was a dearth of success in this county,” Farrell said afterwards. “That’s not too long ago. I’m sure they appreciate what’s gone on in the last number of years.

“I’m sure they’ll afford the team and these players whatever level of patience or courtesy is going to be needed over the next period of time. Who knows what lies ahead? While there’s transition and the team continues to evolve, there’s still a lot of good young blood in there.”

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