Show-stoppers display a crucial quality – they know how to win ugly
Published 29/04/2013 | 05:00
The league is a wicked child, prone to bad manners, idle promise and bare-faced lies. For Jim Gavin, the bonus of Dublin's first win in 20 years will be the folly it exposed then of a spring that left so many tossing petals at his feet.
He's been depicted as some kind of war-time Barnum, determined to inject light into drab, militaristic lives.
His team went to Croke Park yesterday, hailed as a repudiation of the idea that Gaelic football today must be a jumble of highbrow systems directed by extremist coaches for whom spontaneity is a plague. Dublin, the flapping circus posters declared, were taking the game to a new place.
Mickey Harte quietly invited the publicists to reconsider. As he stood on the line, familiarly sanguine and professorial, his young team spinning a web that challenged Dublin to prove other things about themselves, you had to believe that his alchemy is again working little miracles in Tyrone.
When Stephen O'Neill wrenched his ankle while stepping backwards onto a football in the warm-up room "in exactly the same spot" that Sean Cavanagh did likewise on a water-bottle before the '08 All-Ireland quarter-final against the Dubs, the instinct was to put a cap on the ground and invite donations for Harte and his men.
But this is a team that will hand you back your charity and invite you to look in a mirror.
They stifled Dublin at times yesterday and, in truth, that was the beauty of the day. Because Dublin showed that Gavin is creating something more than just a pretty picture in the capital.
True, he is looking to build a team that stretches the imagination further than most of his contemporaries are willing to explore. But Jim Gavin's life in football has also been predicated, above all, upon a compelling will to win silverware. And this Dublin side is no different.
They proved it yesterday in the kind of circumstance designed to expose any semblance of conceit or self-importance.
And Gavin's faith in opaque concepts like lineage and inherited value-systems will have been endorsed by the sight of two children of his own county team-mates from the '80s kicking the points that, ultimately, carried Dublin home. Dean Rock (two) and Jack McCaffrey got the victors' last three scores, no doubt watched in the stand by two misty-eyed fathers.
It proved a wonderfully dramatic climax to a game that often seemed to breathe with the intensity of summer. "Pieces of tin are difficult to win," smiled Gavin after, summoning a poetic flourish in the media auditorium.
In the old days, winning the league was Dublin's way of clearing their heads for championship. What worked for Heffo is hardly to be frowned upon now by those who followed his star.
"Championship is going to come around very, very quickly, so to play a game of this competitive nature, to be put to the pin of our collar, was very fruitful," said the Dublin manager.
"We had nine games in the campaign and some of them we closed out with time to spare, so it was great championship preparation – and that's no disrespect to the league, it's been very good to us – but it was great to see how our players would react today.
"There is great character in the squad and great energy. But it's only when you go down the home straight and questions are being asked. Do they want it? Certainly, today, they did. I think the guys showed great resolve.
"Tyrone are probably in the same cycle as we are and I think they'll have a big say where the Sam Maguire goes this year."
They well might too, although Ballybofey four weeks from now promises the kind of florid Ulster championship scrap that demands every slip of knowledge a great teacher can impart.
Harte will face it all with that gentle evenness he seems to carry through every waking hour. His team could, of course, have won yesterday, but Aidan Cassidy, Kyle Coney and Plunkett Kane all dropped scoring efforts short when Dublin looked to be floundering against the sheer density of white traffic.
Tyrone's pressure game was synopsised perfectly when Bernard Brogan pushed a 49th-minute free against a Hill end post, rushed to collect the rebound only to find himself hopelessly fenced in by four markers.
The Oliver Plunketts man did not manage a score from play all day and would, fatefully, be replaced nine minutes later by the son of Barney Rock.
For Harte, there was then the sense of a stolen opportunity. "It's a very difficult loss for the players because they put such a huge effort in," he reflected.
"But that's life. I suppose coming here, nobody expected us to be as close as that to Dublin, but we believed we would be. There's some measure in consolation in that.
"There's no secret to the fact that Dublin were the in-form team right throughout this league. They were scoring for fun and playing with a lot of confidence. So that we were able to match them for so long is encouraging, but it doesn't give you any trophies unfortunately.
"I think it was a very good league for us. Winning today would have made it a perfect league for us. But it's all about getting competitive game time and I don't think you'd get much more competitive game time than that there."
The league had played out its bag of tricks again, confirming that Dublin, maybe, aren't quite headed for Broadway after all. But they could yet make it to September.