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Seán Moran: Dublin’s remarkable achievements becoming a private matter

Historic success levels inevitably less riveting for the rest of the country

Dublin’s Niall Scully, Cormac Costello, Brian Fenton, Con O’Callaghan, Paul Mannion, Paddy Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly celebrate their latest win. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Sunday in Croke Park brings to mind the perhaps apocryphal yarn that Alexander the Great wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. The concept of great triumphs being unfulfilling is again topical.

 It surfaced a few years ago in Kilkenny’s pomp. How could a county be as delighted by an umpteenth title as they were by the first? It ultimately becomes simply defiance, of once again seeing off all comers, a health check on your greatness.

 Gradually broader admiration turns to resentment, effectively for not giving others a go or refusing to pass around the silverware.

Six short years ago, the football world was – by and large – pleased for Dublin that after 16 years of non-achievement, they reared up one September afternoon and wrested Sam Maguire from the presumed winners, Kerry. That sentiment is no longer to be found.

Yet, it’s untrue to suggest that supporters get tired of winning. They’re obviously not as obsessive as players, mentors and back-room teams but when the big days dawn they’ll still want the flags they fly to be aloft when the final whistle blows.

I’ve always felt suspicious about supposedly genuine followers saying, ‘I hope the opposition win; they deserve it’. Fine for Galway people to say that they honestly wished they weren’t playing Waterford in the hurling final because of their opponents’ even more imposing history of coming up short but once aired, the sad tales from the other side have to be let go on the breeze.

Victory for the most part is a private affair. It radiates out in concentric circles, from players and mentors to administrators to family and friends, club mates, neighbours, county folk home and abroad and gets fainter as it goes.

Only on occasions does the feel-good vibe ripple any distance beyond the relevant boundaries and it’s safe to say that those ripples long since stopped reaching much beyond the Dublin county frontiers.

In my pre-college summer I worked in a restaurant where, exotically for the time, a Malaysian grill chef told me – much to my irritation – that he was glad Kerry stopped Dublin’s three-in-a-row in 1978 because ‘they had won enough’.

For decades he was nearly right.

Serial success

If serial success inexorably becomes a private matter, paradoxically serial failure is very public. Losing teams generally prefer low-key aftermaths.

I remember being in the Mansion House in 1992 watching a civic reception for the hotly favoured Dublin team that ended up getting beaten by last Sunday’s jubilee All-Ireland winners, Donegal. The Dubs had already endured the indignity of an open-top bus parading their glum faces through the city centre at rush hour.

The then Lord Mayor tried to inject positivity into the occasion by telling everyone that they had got to the final and ‘30 other counties would love to swap places with them’.

Team captain Tom Carr – by now used to downbeat oratory on Dawson Street, as he had made an angst-laden speech there the previous year after the final match of the 1991 saga with Meath (to the point where some of the winners grumbled afterwards that it had more or less wrecked their buzz) – refuted this, stating bluntly that he and his team were losers and that ‘nobody wants to swap places with losers’.

Ultimately it will be up to posterity to judge the current team but in the immediate term their extraordinary achievement has had to share space with Mayo’s unprecedented list of travails, 11 finals including replays with no joy, which has attracted widespread attention.

This is unfair on Dublin, who have been an exceptional team based on their annual record in league and championship. This year they lost one match and completed the county’s first three-in-a-row in nearly 100 years.

Unlike the Kilkenny hurlers and the Kerry footballers of the 1970s and ’80s, their supremacy is a close-run thing, a patchwork of great, comfortable victories and tiny intricate, almost imperceptible ones. Their ability to survive adversity and capitalise on opportunity in the final minutes of every All-Ireland they’ve won since 2011 is absolutely remarkable.

They maintain a steady trajectory through each season but their flight-path isn’t massively elevated and annually they have only barely cleared the highest obstacles in their way. That’s harder to do than simply walloping every team you meet.

Strange dynamic

Three-in-a-row creates a strange dynamic. By its very nature teams that achieve it are closer to the end of the road than the start and although Dublin have been brilliantly retooled by Jim Gavin as they go, that probably holds for them as well.

On a slightly discordant note, sounded on these pages already by Kevin McStay, something needs to be done about gamesmanship and cynicism at the end of matches, particularly big ones.

Sunday was a seismic contest, riveting in its physicality and shifting fortunes but the closing scenes with, Dublin players’ dragging down opponents on what was the final kick-out and a Mayo player throwing his GPS unit at Dean Rock when he was taking the winning free, were unacceptable.

It’s difficult to think up adequate deterrents but frees – as in basketball – taken from close range, which can be awarded for infractions taking place anywhere on the field and especially in the dying minutes, might work. The secret of discouraging foul play is simply to make its commission more of a liability than an advantage.