They should have more to them, the Dublin hurlers. That’s always how it feels, isn’t it? By now, by this stage, it all ought to be further along. The great Dublin hurling project was meant to have unspooled in its brightest colours. The bustling factory floor of all that underage toil was supposed to have sent crates of talent out to market, lorry-loads of hurling boxed up and delivered to order.
Instead, here they are. Toeing the start line of Mattie Kenny's third championship with no public expectation of finishing the summer anywhere but among the also-rans. In terms of spirit and cohesion, they're nothing like the rabble they became in the Ger Cunningham years – and yet they are in exactly the same spot on the ladder, most people's idea of the ninth-best of the 11 Liam MacCarthy teams.
Under Kenny, Dublin have played 25 matches in league and championship since the start of 2019. They've won 12, lost 12 and drawn one. Of their 12 victories, four have been against Laois, three against Carlow and one each against Offaly and Antrim. Strip those out and you're left with league wins against Tipperary and Waterford and a day of days against Galway in the 2019 championship.
And of course, the gleam of that June Saturday night in Parnell Park was dulled almost immediately, the shock defeat to Laois three weeks later taking the good out of Kenny's first season. All the progress from a reasonably good league and a stirring passage through the Leinster round-robin had the knees cut from under it.
“It’s still so up and down,” says Ryan O’Dwyer, who retired in 2018. “A good performance followed by a bad one. You never know what you’re going to get with them. That win against Galway in 2019, I wasn’t at it because I was away but I was following and somebody sent me a clip afterwards of the team and the crowd all chanting, ‘Come on you boys in blue’.
“And I was thinking, ‘That’s dangerous now. Ye’re not in a Leinster final, ye’re not in an All-Ireland final or semi-final.’ It wasn’t even an All-Ireland quarter-final they had qualified for. It was a good win but you can’t get carried away. And then they went and got bet by Laois. That’s just typical Dublin.”
Two years down the road and Dublin are who they are. Just as they can generally be relied upon to beat the teams below them, you won't be much out of pocket backing them to lose to the ones above them. They haven't won an All Star since 2013, with just seven nominations for six players in that time (Chris Crummey has made the long list twice).
They reek of stasis and drift. Of robbing Peter and paying Paul. They've played with a spare defender throughout Kenny's time, even as the game has quietly moved on. The twin totems of Crummey and Liam Rushe have both had seasons in attack and seasons in defence and seasons where on any given day, you could find them in either, both or neither. Seán Moran has been shifted around the middle third, ditto Cian Boland. Sometimes Donal Burke plays inside, sometimes they bring him out to midfield.
All of which would be fine, if it was the sort of nimble shape-shifting that kept the opposition on its toes and made Dublin hard to pin down. But if anything, Dublin are one of the more predictable teams in the championship.
They are pretty solid in the full-back line where Eoghan O'Donnell is the obvious standout. They pack the half-back line to try and mop up possession and work it through the lines from there. They have pace in attack, notwithstanding the fact that they lost Eamonn Dillon for the championship this week with a cruelly-timed injury. But it's all a bit by rote, as though the players are tramlined and their movements pre-ordained.
“It looks from the outside like they’re not allowed to express themselves,” O’Dwyer says. “It looks like everything is so tightly aligned to the gameplan. But hurling is chaos. Dublin look to have a rigid gameplan and nobody steps outside of that. I hate seeing them like this. I hate saying things against them because I am so passionate about Dublin hurling. I’m friends with all the lads there and I have nothing against any of them.
“I did one of their league games before the lockdown last year, against Kilkenny in Nowlan Park. I was doing it for Newstalk. And people were saying to me afterwards that they couldn’t believe how disgusted I sounded on the radio. But I was, I was absolutely disgusted.
“It was a case of, ‘I have the ball here, I have to hit it there and he has to be in that spot to get it and then he’ll hit it over there.’ And if I could see that from the stand, then it wasn’t hard for the Kilkenny team and management to see it too. I know that hurling has changed, it has become so much more regimented and whatever. I know I sound like and oul’ lad here. But at some stage you have trust your forwards to go and do something unexpected. Dublin don’t look like they trust their forwards.”
On that front, the over-reliance on Dónal Burke, and particularly his free-taking, has become an issue too. Now, on the whole, Burke has been a thoroughly positive addition to the Dublin forward line. Though Paul Ryan and David Treacy had both had their good days on the Dublin frees going back a decade and though Oisín O'Rorke had done some service as well, none of them were unimpeachable. Burke has been, for the most part. Hence, Ryan slipped back into civilian life over the lockdown, while most of Treacy and O'Rorke's minutes are off the bench now.
Burke, meanwhile, was the Division One top scorer in the league just gone. He potted 1-55 across their five games, 1-43 of it from placed balls. He scored 0-18 against Laois, 0-13 against Clare, 1-10 against Wexford, each one the kind of meaty total that any serious team needs nowadays just to shoot par.
The problem for Dublin, however, is that Burke's tallies made up a far thicker chunk of their overall totals than his counterparts did elsewhere. Burke's 1-55 counted for 45.6 per cent of Dublin's scoring in the league. The next pair on the list were Jason Forde (4-41) and Patrick Horgan (3-42) but neither of them made up anywhere close to as much of Tipperary and Cork's totals. In the end, Forde was responsible for 38.9 per cent of Tipp's scores, while Horgan's number was even lower, at 31.4 per cent.
And if you narrow it down further and count just scores from placed balls, the picture is starker again. Burke’s 1-43 from frees, 65s and penalties in the league accounts for 36.2 per cent of Dublin’s scores. By contrast, Forde scored 1-34 from placed balls (27.2 per cent of Tipp’s total), while Horgan’s number was just 0-32 (19.8 per cent of Cork’s). Horgan didn’t play all of every game, of course, but the point stands. Cork were the leading scorers in the league and they didn’t need their main man to keep the tills spinning to do it.
If the number jungle feels like it got a little thick and overgrown for a few paragraphs there, the simpler version is this. Dublin have solved their free-taking problem, which is good. But they’re sourcing significantly more of their scores from placed balls than anybody else, which is not so good. Despite Burke’s excellent league, all it added up to was a win over Antrim and another over Laois. Dublin need more.
And look, maybe more is coming. Certainly the Leinster under-20 final victory over Galway on Wednesday night couldn’t have been better timed. Of all the counties heading out onto the championship ocean, nobody needed to see a flare launched into the sky more urgently than Dublin. Just to remind everyone – themselves included – that they are still a going concern.
There is no doubt that the production line hasn’t been as smooth in recent years as had been hoped. For all the ballyhoo of the capital’s underage investment, this will be the first All-Ireland final at minor or under-20/21 level since 2012. They did the minor and under-21 double in Leinster five years ago but out of those teams, the bounty for the 2021 seniors has been slim enough.
Granted, O'Donnell was the rock of that under-21 defence and now fills the same spot for the seniors. But after him, you're talking about role players like Paddy Smyth, Daire Gray and Ronan Hayes from the minors and Jake Malone and Riain McBride from the (then) under-21s. Solid intercounty players, all. But there's not a lot of stardust there.
On which note, it must have been both thrilling and slightly depressing for Dublin supporters to watch Lee Gannon sizzle his way to man of the match on Wednesday night for the under-20s. Gannon picked off four points from play and in a cracker of a game where the margins were paper thin, he was unquestionably the difference.
He is also, inevitably, one of the most promising young footballers in the city and a member of Dessie Farrell's extended panel. In the mould of Ciarán Kilkenny, Diarmuid Connolly, Con O'Callaghan and countless others before him, Gannon's future in blue is probably going to be centred on the bigger ball. Ho hum.
None of that is relevant to this afternoon’s game against Antrim, of course. But the under-20 win did at least improve the mood music. This is widely expected to be Kenny’s last year in the gig and if that’s how it goes, then under-20 manager Paul O’Brien has done himself no harm should a vacancy arise over the winter.
Neither will the fact that O'Brien is a native Dub harm his chances. This isn't a small thing, either. In the Dublin dressingroom this afternoon, the city accents belong to the players while Kenny and his selectors are all from beyond the M50. It shouldn't matter and it wouldn't even come up if the team was beating everything in sight. But they aren't so it does.
“I’m not a Dub, obviously,” says O’Dwyer, “but I know how important it is. I think it’s a big flaw not having at least one Dub among the selectors there. Dalo was great obviously in my time but he needed Hedgo [Ciarán Hetherington] in there too. You need that Dublin voice. There’s loads of retired guys around that would have inspired these lads as young fellas, that would command respect as soon as they walked through the door. Why wouldn’t you have one or two of them in there?
“I would seriously worry for them. I think the Antrim game is 50/50. I wouldn’t be a gambler but I’m amazed to see the bookies odds stacked so heavily in Dublin’s favour. Would you see them beating any of the bigger teams? I doubt it. I hope I’m wrong but I doubt it.”