Kevin McStay: If Dublin win six will the GAA see it as a problem?
Champions learned hard lessons and, with GAA’s help, an irreversible process is now in place
Dublin’s Jim Gavin and Stephen Cluxton after their victory over Kerry. Those two and John Costello are the three most important people in Dublin GAA. Two out of three may leave. Photograph: Tom Honan
Like many people, I watched Stephen Cluxton’s victory lap in Croke Park and felt that maybe he was saying goodbye. He has done it all and been around for a long, long time: 18 years in which Dublin have completely transformed their approach to elite Gaelic football. The result has been the emergence of this brilliant, brilliant team, of five All-Irelands in a row and a nagging fear that they have cracked the code of amateurism. Even as we applauded them on Saturday evening, the questions were there. Where are we now? When will this end? And: why should it end?
Overall, it was a strange evening. An All-Ireland final on a Sunday at half-past three is a national occasion. It is a ceremony that dominates the day. A replay is different. Saturday night at six o’clock: the world is getting ready to go out on the town. There was no minor match, no crowd gathering in the stadium and the overall sense of the evening was: this very important game needs a resolution. But the sense of occasion was absent. So I have a strong, strong sense that the All-Irelands should go back to September and that any replay should be on a Sunday.
The scale of Dublin’s achievement deserved a bigger occasion. In the end, they did what we all expected them to do last January. They retained their All-Ireland champion status and the Sam Maguire. But they didn’t do it simply. Go back to the evening they beat Mayo in 2017 by a point. I was of the view then that the five-in-a-row was all but inevitable. My view is that Kerry should have won the drawn match but were very much second best on Saturday night. And Dublin have now won the last two All-Irelands by six points.
Those are big margins given that we are trying to convince ourselves that the gap is closing. The five-in-a-row started and ended with beating Kerry. So I would caution those who feel this is the conclusion or end of something. Remember 1982? Kerry distraught and all of that. Yet they dusted themselves down and completed another three-in-a-row from 1984 to 1986 before they broke up. I don’t have the sense that Dublin are in any way sated by this. Brian Howard and that generation are only setting out on their careers.
So where is Gaelic football now, as the 2019 inter-county season closes? Well, I think it is fair to say that at the elite level, the standard has never been higher. What was served up to us over these two finals was breathtaking. Look at the scoring alone: five guys got four points or more from play in an All-Ireland final. Seventeen scores from play in the first half of the second game. Ten from 13 shots for Dublin in that half. Ten for 12 from Kerry. A total of 1-17 out of 1-18 from play for Dublin over the course of the game. No wide for Dublin in that first half. These are outrageous returns given the pressure of the occasion. And we saw the re-emergence of the full-forward line as the real danger and excitement source. We have gone through an era where the likes of Conor McManus was blotted out by double-team markers but now, the inside forward is making a huge impact again. And it is fun to see.
But the big problem is that there are only three or four county teams operating at that level. Right now, there are four tiers in Gaelic football. Dublin and Kerry are on one plane. Then Tyrone and Donegal, and maybe Mayo but maybe not. And maybe Galway and maybe not. Then you have the Division Two teams. And then the rest. I feel that the gap is growing. I remember Ciarán Whelan arguing that the massive GAA investment in Dublin has not influenced the current senior team. He felt that the roll-out and dividend of players from that huge GAA investment is just now beginning to emerge. It’s an appalling vista for the rest of Ireland if this is the case.
The only county who can feel in any way secure is Kerry, who have those five minor titles in a row to build upon. But even Kerry will have nagging fears through this winter. Yes, their young team took Dublin to the brink. They did well. But they missed a golden chance to win. Had Mayo lost in those circumstances, the accusation of choking would be levelled at them. Kerry rightly deserve not be called chokers. But they will regret that drawn game for many years. And we don’t know but it could prove their best chance to beat Dublin. You don’t want to get into a habit of becoming close to winning All-Irelands.
Things become difficult if you lose two finals. They have now joined the ranks of teams who have lost to Dublin. So the pressure will be on this winter. Will David Moran and Tommy Walsh be around in three years' time? And if not, will Kerry be able to replace them? And if Dublin keep winning All-Irelands for the next two years and you keep falling short, then the whole thing can become overwhelming.
Why have Dublin proven impossible to beat for five years?
Go down to the pub and have a quiz. Dublin are the best team I have seen in my lifetime. But then go pick the best 15 out of the Kerry team of the Mick O’Dwyer era and this Dublin side and Kerry may end up with more players. They may have had better individual talents. That is where the Dublin secret lies. The type of player they are producing is so rounded. Like Howard or Niall Scully. I remember Dean Rock playing for Ballymun when he was young. And he was very good but you couldn’t see him growing into the player he has become.
These Dublin players are getting the very best people in there to help them become better: athletically, physically and fundamentally, not to mention psychologically. My sense is that Jim Gavin and the people around him are interested in team, team, team. They have been brilliant at channelling the individual ego into the collective energy. It is about honesty of effort for them. It is not outrageous talent that gets Dublin through games. It is this deep internal trust and conviction in their process. They adjust and repeat.
Their strength and conditioning is superior to everybody else’s, including Kerry. Is this fair? Peter Canavan made an important point on this. Bryan Cullen came from Leinster Rugby because Dublin identified him as key to what they wanted to do. I don’t know the fine print of it but I am guessing that meant a pretty big five-figure sum – at least. The flipside is Peter Donnelly with Tyrone. Ulster Rugby see him with Tyrone and they like the kind of athlete he is turning out. So they make him an offer that Peter feels he can’t refuse. You might say: how hard can it be to get a good strength and conditioning guy? Well, fine. But any programme must be overseen. What gets measured gets done.
Maybe Dublin can now leave their guys to supervise their own strength programme. But in the early stages, there has to be regular monitoring of everything; how they lift weights, their nutrition, their rest. The physical difference between Dublin’s players and their opponents has become more pronounced with every passing year of this five-in-a-row era.
Mayo, for instance, like most other counties do not have a full-time strength coach. The guys who work with other county teams are no doubt excellent and dedicated. But they have other clients and other concerns. It is not exclusive. The difference is further complicated by geography. Dublin is a compact city. Their chief opponents are big sprawling counties: it is hard for a strength coach to physically spend time with all of the players, week in week out.
Dublin therefore know they are athletically better conditioned than the other teams. That gives you an enormous weapon in any ball sport. So on Saturday night, Dublin went after the likes of David Clifford and Moran and they took them on tours of the park. They tested their aerobic capacity. They want to empty them of gas. It is no coincidence that Kerry stopped scoring in the last 15 minutes of both finals. It is Dublin’s movement off the ball that staggers me. They have a near sadistic appetite for punishing running. And they tackle hard so you will be sore and sucking for oxygen when you get up. Again and again. Look at the domination of the All Blacks. It is built on physical supremacy. It is built on pace and power. That is what Dublin are about now.
If you look at Bernard Brogan as the prototype Dublin forward at the beginning of this era: Bernard relied on an under-rated ball-winning ability but mostly on guile and skill. Con O’Callaghan has skill but it is his physical attributes that jump out. He is the prototype of the Dublin forward of tomorrow.
Canavan has said we have to accept that this is the new reality. He is right. But the bigger picture is that the other counties just can’t match it. There are things the GAA could do. At central level, they could pay everybody’s mileage. They could pay everybody’s accommodation and food and pay each county to employ a strength and conditioning coach.
But even that may not change the outcome. I can’t see Dublin losing a knock-out All-Ireland match any time soon. Now, they are likely to lose seven or eight players from yesterday’s programme. One of those might well be Cluxton. What if Gavin goes also? Who are the three most important people in Dublin GAA now? I would argue: John Costello, Gavin and Cluxton. Two out of three may leave. They have set the standard. That is their legacy to Dublin GAA: not the history scroll. They have corporate knowledge of how to perpetuate this culture of success.
So take Dublin under-14 teams and look at who is in charge. They have experienced former players and coaches of quality. They aren’t hamstrung by the need to produce titles. But they do want to bring players through. And they have the resources. So they have a huge pick of players coming through and the best of those are funnelled through to the academies and the cream of that group ends up playing for Dublin.
The difficulty for the GAA is that even if they are worried now, they can’t articulate it. Dublin must be given their due regards. They have been brilliant, wonderful champions and it is important not to diminish their achievement. However, their rise leaves deeper lying questions for HQ.
If Dublin win six, then the thing moves from historic to overwhelming. In public, Dublin talk about humility and community and family. And they mean it. Their public persona is that it is a huge privilege to wear that jersey. And it is. But when they get down to business, it is a hugely professional structure driven by people whose specialise in excellence.
So for the rest of the GAA family, the sight of six-in-a-row will be a bridge too far. They will begin to insist on intervention. Nobody within the official GAA has stepped out yet and said: we acknowledge that this is a problem. The tier-two system is just a band-aid to the issue. Most county boards are stretched financially. They don’t have established annual income streams. A lot of the energy of officialdom is to try and churn out enough money just to keep their teams on the road.
This is not about making Dublin a lesser team. The process is in place now and can’t be reversed. They took the hard lessons of the early 2000s when they were glamorous and took hammerings from Kerry and Tyrone. And, with the help of the GAA, they have flipped all of that. The result has been startling. The great delight has been that we are seeing the game we love being played at a brilliant level. The great worry is that they have literally become unbeatable at it.