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Malachy Clerkin: Dublin won’t win the All-Ireland this year

We can admire Dublin and still want to puke at how straightforward they have made it

Dublin won't win the All-Ireland this year. Somebody will beat them at some stage over the next seven weeks. Could be Kerry at the end, could be Mayo in the semi-final, could be one of the northern teams if one of the other two fall before then. We know not the day nor the power. But it will happen.

This is not meant to be provocative. Truth be told, it’s as much a shock to this column as it is to anyone to realise it. If it feels like an outlandish thing to declare, that’s only because this is the first time in the past nine years when you could have felt confident even bringing it up.

Think back over it. At no stage during the six-in-a-row could you have banged your fist on the table and declared the Dubs would be beaten. The last time they lost a championship game was, famously, in 2014, a game that Donegal went into as the biggest outsiders in an All-Ireland semi-final for 20 years. The year before that was Jim Gavin's first, when he unleashed Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion, Dean Rock et al on the championship and danced them all into submission.

For the first time in almost a decade, they have the look of a team who lack the firepower to pull it off

Oh, there have been your hunches and your feelings and your just-might-bes down the years. The mind drifts to Colm Parkinson's podcast the week before the Dubs played Tyrone in 2017 where neither of his guests predicted a Dublin win. Stevie McDonnell and Conan Doherty - no mug, either of them - got to the verdicts at the end and went for a draw (McDonnell) and a Tyrone win (Doherty). Woolly himself was the rock of sense in the group but even he went for Tyrone to cover the three-point spread.


The point is, we’ve all taken a swing from time to time. We’ve all written match previews where we were, in Seán Moran’s great phrase, “attempting to look wise after the event, before the event”. This column is far from immune, having spent most of the years between 2011 and 2015 indulging in a frankly weird mania for giving the verdict to underdogs in matches against the Kilkenny hurlers. The thinking was probably that it would turn out to be right eventually. What an idiot.

Anyway, this is not that. Obviously if we start predicting on an annual basis that Dublin won’t win the All-Ireland, the year will come around where that will be the case. But that’s stopped clock stuff, of no use to anybody. It’s not the point of the exercise here.

No, it’s more that we should all take a minute to mark the novelty of the moment we have. Breathe the air, take in the day. Recognise that at the sharp end of things at least, there is a championship afoot. The scandal of kicking the lower orders out after one game is a stain on it all but we can talk about that some other time.

This is about rejoicing in the fact that for this summer at least, the whole thing isn’t a done deal. For all of Dublin’s inarguable qualities throughout the Gavin era and last year, the chronic predictability of it all has been a pair of concrete slippers for the championship as a whole. We can admire Dublin and still want to puke at how straightforward they have made it.

Mayo’s repeated and epic refusals to bow down is what endeared them to so many people along the way. Even at the height of that great rivalry though, you always felt on some level that you were stretching the arguments for Mayo in the build-up to games in a way you didn’t have to do for Dublin. There were too many ifs and buts and ultimately, when it came down to it, you half-knew all the time that Dublin’s bench would decide it in the end.

Things are different this year. The last time you could sit down mid-championship and be adamant that Dublin weren't going to win it all was in August 2012 when Pat Gilroy's team scraped past Laois in the last eight of their All-Ireland defence. They had already been unconvincing against Wexford and Meath in Leister and the key score in the Laois game was a goal from a deflection by Michael Darragh Macauley. They were anything but back-to-back champions in waiting and so it proved against Mayo next day out.

The championship has changed in the meantime and clearly there is no real danger to Dublin in Leinster. Meath will presumably feel every bit of the great vengeance and furious anger routine this coming Sunday and neither Kildare nor Westmeath are up to it either. But they will have to win two serious games against two serious teams after that. And for the first time in almost a decade, they have the look of a team who lack the firepower to pull it off.

The loss of Stephen Cluxton is a real thing. Ditto the loss of McCaffrey and Mannion and Cian O'Sullivan. But just as real is the gradual erosion of their cast of bit-part heroes. There's no Darren Daly to send on to do a job in any one of the defensive positions. There's no Paddy Andrews or Kevin McManamon to bring in as soon as one of the shooters kicks two wides. There's no Macauley to thud into midfield to change the tempo and tenor of a game.

Maybe these roles are going to be filled by Tom Lahiff and Peadar Ó Coifigh Byrne and the Basquel brothers and Aaron Byrne and Séan McMahon and Seán Bugler and Cillian O'Shea and Shane Carthy. But nobody knows that yet and so there's no reason for anyone to fear the reaper when Dublin start emptying the bench.

It would obviously be wrong to posit that Kerry or Mayo or Donegal or whoever have a more proven squad than Dublin. That is just not true. Dessie Farrell’s side did win an All-Ireland just over seven months ago, after all.

But every one of those good teams must surely see Dublin in a reduced state and have immortal words of the British cox in an Olympic rowing event years ago ringing in their ears. If not now, when? If not you, who?

For the first time in years, mark this column down as one who doesn’t see the answer being the obvious.