Back to the wall: Pat Gilroy knows what’s at stake
Gilroy acutely aware that defeat to northern nemesis Tyrone could end his reign at Dubs helm as patience of fans stretched to limit
A benevolent sun beamed down upon St Clare's yesterday morning from an azure sky.
But the storm clouds are swiftly assembling -- literally and metaphorically. It seems Dublin and the weather will always be fickle relations.
Dublin supporters fretfully await the return of their northern nemesis Tyrone, anticipating nervously whether their manager, Pat Gilroy, can become that rarest of beasts -- a man capable of inflicting back-to-back championship defeats upon Mickey Harte.
The northern superpowers have benchmarked much of Dublin's recent history, beginning with the 1995 All-Ireland success that at once both ended one enduring famine, yet immediately launched another era of yearning.
Successive defeats in the middle of the last decade signified Dublin's inability to breach the Tyrone-Kerry duopoly, the humiliation in 2008 ensuring Pillar Caffrey's exit and the ushering in of Gilroy, the ascetic supplanting the aesthetic.
Since then, Dublin have stumbled as much as they have marched through championship fare, highs and lows speckling their days in the big blue house with a regularity that would infuriate their supporters were they not utterly inoculated to inconsistency by this stage.
Tyrone, again, provided a litmus test for Dublin's renewed rigour last summer; only for the systemic failings of the side's doggedly Amish work ethic to fail their legs and minds in the dying moments against Cork.
If ever there was a championship where blue collar beliefs may have triumphed, 2010 was the year; Cork's subsequent demise has arguably heightened that impression. Now Dublin attempt to re-scale the vertiginous heights that have proved beyond their reach since last reaching the final an almost unfathomable 16 years ago.
Gilroy's hard-nosed business persona will not be unaware of the unforgiving irony that a team that ultimately shepherded in the new management, could also be the outfit that marks its demise.
The Dublin boss, more than any of the thousands who will throng the rain-sodden streets today, or those who will huddle giddily in the ale houses of the north inner city en route to Jones's Road, will be keenly aware of the stakes at play.
Earlier this year, he outlined in no uncertain terms, the unforgiving landscape in which he so manfully strives to achieve on behalf of an expectant county. "You can delude yourself into thinking things are far better than they are," he said at the onset of league fare in darkest February.
"At the end of the day, we won nothing, whereas we had won a Leinster championship the previous year.
"This is about winning. We were close to getting to a National League final, got hammered in Leinster and then came close to getting to an All-Ireland final. But if you look at it coldly, we regressed in terms of results last year, because we lost the Leinster Championship.
"The changes to the way we played happened in a bigger way last year and also, there were considerable changes in personnel. So, you'd be going into this year thinking we are not starting afresh. But as regards being further down the road in terms of results -- we are not."
With his term ending at the final whistle of a defeat in this championship, there are no more escape clauses in this venture. It is now or never.
Gilroy's own logic -- that regression will continue should his side fail to justify bookies' favouritism this evening -- resoundingly intimates that a termination of his reign should logically ensue.
Yet there are those who would justifiably affirm that this would be as detrimental as his leaving of the post; that patience would be a better virtue than another summary re-arranging of the managerial deck-chairs, however enlightened the candidates waiting in the wings.
Dublin's pride in the jersey and honesty of effort brooks little argument and to discard the template at this delicate stage of gestation would be a backwards step. But the Dublin supporter's patience is at breaking point. And, critically, it remains to be seen how elastic the tolerance of his players will be.
The management have invested much emphasis on their players abandoning the free-form style indulged in previous years, but last year's Tyrone coup and encouraging league success aside, Dublin, in theory, are still as far away from the promised land as ever.
Last year's Tyrone success did nothing more than hint at illusory promise; just as in the year of Cozzie and beforethat fateful implosion against Mayo four years later.
In mitigation, Gilroy eschewed much of the nonsense that prevailed in both those seasons, but the end result was still the same. They died with their boots off. Different methods, same result.
By deciding to banish personalities such as Shane Ryan, Ciaran Whelan and, eventually, Jason Sherlock, Gilroy was guided by the principle of the collective. It didn't please the public, but it did, belatedly, inculcate a strength of will in his squad.
Key personalities like Alan Brogan and Bryan Cullen have thrived this season, where once even they may have harboured doubts about their role in the greater scheme of things.
Yet the mutual trust in a manager can only last so long; the damage induced by another disheartening defeat at a latter stage of the championship will stretch the tolerance of even the most selfless of athletes.
Arguing against those who insist that Gilroy must remain regardless of the unfolding of this year's championship plot, the highlighted charge is that the selection policies and sideline dithering undo much of the good work done behind closed doors.
Notwithstanding the fact that both of tonight's selections may be radically altered before throw-in, Barry Cahill's continued non-selection remains a mystery, as does the wanton treatment of Kevin McManamon.
And yet, like any other manager, Gilroy can't kick every ball. Nor can he be blamed for Diarmuid Connolly's stubborn refusal to unleash the classy big-time player most Dublin supporters know exists.
But he can be more astute on the sideline, whether it is being more decisive in shoring up the central gulf exploited by weaker teams than Tyrone in Leinster, or ensuring that a ball-carrier can be introduced earlier when the two-man full-forward line becomes increasingly isolated.
The feeling up north, presumably one not infiltrating the Tyrone squad, is that they were mugged at this stage last season and that their supremo won't be fooled twice by the relative greenhorn in the other bainisteoir's bib.
It is that feeling which also reverberates nervously within Dublin supporters' hearts this morning, particularly that familiar fear that the side may abandon their counter-attacking game, with players funnelling back suicidally, when the heat is at its fiercest.
Can Dublin handle the pressure? Gilroy brooked no argument at Dublin HQ yesterday morning.
"Every day that you go out as a Dublin team, no matter what the gap is, there's an expectation there that you've got to go and win the All-Ireland, and I don't think we could measure success this year any way else other than by doing something like that.
"That's it for us. Does it bring an extra pressure? I think it's no more pressure than any other team that's left in the competition; everybody will have an expectation to win.
"There is an onus on us to push things on, for sure, but I don't think it really brings any extra pressure than the pressure you're putting on yourself. When you put in the time and effort that we've put in here, anything but success is a disaster for us.
"It's as simple as that."
To avoid disaster, Gilroy must retain the courage of his convictions. Not to do so will harbour negative thoughts among his players, particularly within the context of a nail-biting endgame.
And without the players' conviction, there is nothing. Expect them to weather this evening's storms. Because they have no other choice.