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Kevin McStay: Outstanding Dublin are back on track after Wexford win

Every time Con O’Callaghan gets the ball, he looks like he might score a goal

The memory can play tricks but I am certain I have played Gaelic football in every county in Ireland. The Wexford trip, in the dim and distant past, ranked among the most exotic. I played when Mayo hopped through the divisions fairly liberally. And it helped that the GAA continually shook up the division as though the competition itself was a bag of Lego in the hands of a child: they built it up and broke it down for fun.

Half the time you didn’t know what division you were in. But the league was a kind of an adventure into the unknown in those days. Just before I came along, Mayo played Kerry in Listowel and Down in Kiltimagh. Division One had four teams! My league career started in October of 1983 and as it turned out, my debut was in Wexford.

Fragments of that weekend came to me as I drove down there last weekend. Let me say: morale was high. We had Liam O’Neill in as a new manager and a good under-21 team. The sense we had was that the trip would take a full day. We travelled by bus. And we had an overnight. This constituted the high life.

The result was painful. But the match is worth examining because my premise is that we witnessed a truly outstanding Dublin performance

We were all called down for a “team meeting” in the hotel, which was an outrageous concept at the time. Liam was talking about “objectives” – promotion, beating Galway in Connacht. This was our to-do list. Naturally, we were a bit light-headed after all of this and we felt we needed to find a hostelry in Enniscorthy to give this new dispensation the full discussion it deserved.


We didn’t do the dog on it by any means. But we relaxed. And on Sunday afternoon, we lost the game. By a point. Which meant we were consigned to that division next year also. So the trip home was one of dejection, through the winding night time roads of Charles Haughey’s Ireland. Welcome to the big time, McStay.

Well, Mayo and Wexford have not got any closer since. But the motorways help. And I thought of the task facing Wexford as they prepared for Dublin on the drive down. What they were going to offer Dublin was defence if their sprightly win over Offaly was anything to go by.

The number of backs who scored against Offaly was greater than the number of forwards. Ben Brosnan's 1-8 was outstanding but it lit him up for the Dublin backroom team and they took the superglue and Eoin Murchan and completely blotted Ben out. Wexford had lost their most potent weapon and it pointed to a long, tough day.

The result was painful. But the match is worth examining because my premise is that we witnessed a truly outstanding Dublin performance. Remember, Wexford were just a point down after the first quarter, which was a good return for Shane Roche. But by the time the bell tolled, they were absolutely crucified. Wexford conceded size, speed, skill, conditioning, tactics, tackling and most importantly, consistency in the application of those advantages.

When you try to draw a line in form, you look for this: did Dublin get sloppy after they got on top? They didn't. They maintained a level of efficient, relentless excellence. And on television, Dessie Farrell used the phrase "consistent application". That is what we saw. Ignore the hype of their relegation for a moment. Go back to the semi-final against Mayo last summer. Dublin's vulnerability was flagged when they met Wexford last year and looked flat as they struggled to post 0-15.

Still and all, they won Leinster. And against Mayo, Dublin were up six points at half-time and were exhibiting the trademark patience and control. They were not allowing Mayo to lay a glove on them. Yet within a few hours of that half-time break, Mayo were favourites to win the All-Ireland. How did that happen?

Ticked the boxes

The point is: Dublin didn’t become a useless team. This was known even as we watched them sink in the league. The question was whether they were still a driven team. And in Wexford Park, in all fundamental aspects, they ticked the boxes. What we watched was a team easing into championship form with a daunting level of intent.

Look at David O’Hanlon in goal. By my reckoning he was nearly breaking records with his restarts: from the time the ball went wide or over the bar, he had restarted within four seconds. At one stage, a Wexford player kicked for a point and David was on the 20-metre line with the spare ball and the tee until he realised that the breeze had carried the shot back into play.

Jonny Cooper played the sweeper role (they were taking nothing for granted!). There is a difference between being named as sweeper and actually playing the role, which requires constant jumping into the passing lanes and frustrating the opposition as they look for the inside channels.

It was a left-field All-Ireland win for Tyrone. It probably surprised Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher and the squad themselves

Cooper, a decorated senior player, did that all day. When Wexford used the tramlines, Dublin clearly targeted the use of the sideline as an extra defender. They would show the Wexford ball carrier the line and then spring a double and treble team on the ball carrier and it was like taking candy from a child. The tackling was outrageously aggressive.

Brian Fenton and Tom Lahiff were excellent at midfield. I don't mean the glossy stuff. I mean smashing the midfield break in the assurance that their ball-winners – Kilkenny and company – would dominate those possessions.

Maybe we had forgotten how good, too, Con O’Callaghan is. He was outstanding here. And he is a rare species in that every time he gets the ball, he looks like he might score a goal. He has this explosive first step and he straightens the defender immediately. He finished with a big score. Along with Howard, Scully, Kilkenny and Rock and Costello and Seán Bugler you have a strong, strong attacking unit.

So the question we wanted answered from Saturday’s game was: have Dublin disappeared? Has the hunger just left them? This was their reply. They are chasing a 12th consecutive Leinster title and it looks from this evidence that they are keen to win it too.

And it created the sense of an accelerating championship. Tyrone’s dismantling by Derry was the big story of the weekend. I don’t agree that this defeat taints their achievement last year or that it substantiates the theory that theirs was a lucky All-Ireland win. I’ll tell you, we in Mayo would take a lucky All-Ireland anytime.

There is no such thing as an undeserved All-Ireland title. Séamus Darby doesn’t score that goal for Offaly in 1982 unless he gets himself in that position. Tyrone beat Donegal, they beat Kerry, and they beat the favourites in the All-Ireland final. They did what they had to do. All-Irelands are so hard won. They did get a bounce of luck in that there were no qualifiers. And the well-documented Covid saga just further complicated the already thorny rivalry they share with Kerry.

But this is a huge disappointment for them.


Did they blow all that potential? Well, it was a left-field All-Ireland win. It probably surprised Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher and the squad themselves. And these surprises can produce a huge release of emotion – and enjoyment. They were moving from the Harte era to a new era. And little things began to bite. Squad players left. Maybe they took the foot off the gas over the winter – but weren't they entitled to? Their league form was indifferent. And they were unfortunate in that they had Derry waiting for them here.

This is a rivalry that we down south do not understand. It is familial and established and deeply felt. And Derry have been planning for this from a long way out and they have a terrific tactical manager on the sideline in Rory Gallagher. It was still a tall task.

But Derry almost outfoxed Donegal in Ballybofey a year ago. It was clear they were going to take a major scalp sooner or later. And Tyrone carried that insipid form into Healy Park and Derry delighted in exposing it. They were shocking, really. And they paid the price. The manner of the defeat was more shocking than the result. They went down so tamely.

Right now, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Galway have broken ahead of the field. And you have to watch for Monaghan, too.

Dublin’s demolition of Wexford chimed with results around the country, when the top 10 again clarified the difference between them and the rest. Kildare absolutely destroyed a Louth team who had a buoyant league season. Roscommon were in a different grade to Sligo.

The qualifiers are now a complete piranha pool. Supporters are rationalising their defeats, in that the new system means they are no further away from the quarter-finals than the provincial teams. This is true. But the point is that the contest to emerge from those qualifying games is going to be ferocious. Big teams, big names will fall.

The All-Ireland champions are on the ropes. If Tyrone are looking to prove those criticisms wrong, they best get their act together before the qualifiers.

Still, the most relevant headline to me was that Dublin are back on track. The training camp in Portugal obviously did the trick. There was a quiet assumption that they would be in the last four of the All-Ireland before this weekend.

And I noted they mentioned criticism in their post-match interviews. There is the sense of their having taken stock and regrouped. They are back in control of their destiny.

That is bad news for all the pretenders out there.