Comment - Gap closing but last few strides still the longest
Published 04/10/2016 | 02:30
Back in the middle of the last decade, when Dublin were on the wrong end of yet another narrow All-Ireland semi-final defeat, the county board's chief executive John Costello took to wondering aloud in his annual report to convention as to when their habit of losing classic games would be kicked.
Through the semi-finals of 2002, '06 and '07 and the quarter-finals and replays of '01 and '05 Dublin played strong supporting roles in entertaining games of high quality but still came up painfully short each time.
Costello's words echoed with frustration. The culture of losing their way at the higher altitude looked embedded in them.
You think of how it was then to how it is now. Three All-Ireland final wins in six years by a point, the fourth by a score.
For all the flamboyance, for all the weaving patterns they run to mesmerise defences, for all the conviction of their blue-chip forwards that we associate so much with them, it is their obstinance in tight situations that has become the greatest weapon in their armoury.
No team now hugs that final bend better, as last Saturday evening illustrated more than ever. The shift to serial winning has been striking.
Getting up to their level has been one challenge that their nearest rivals have met, but getting by them is a completely different and more difficult one.
Mayo lost an All-Ireland final series over 167 minutes by a point. So close. Yet they led for just 11 of those minutes: the five between the sixth and 11th minutes of the drawn game before Kevin McLoughlin's own goal, four after Lee Keegan's goal the last day and two after Diarmuid O'Connor had given them a third-quarter lead. So far away.
They can reflect on the micro-analysis of a potentially superior kick-out that led to the macro decision to supplant a goalkeeper who had performed his fundamental goalkeeping duties so well in the drawn game as the main strand in their latest downfall but if that penalty hadn't been conceded to present their opponents with a three-point lead, is it so certain that their opponents wouldn't have found a way to win anyway, just as they have consistently been doing since March 2015?
When you've not lost in 28 consecutive league and championship matches (29 now) you're surely entitled to a more favourable hypothesis.
The treadmill to take Dublin into 2017 will start rolling soon.
In conversation with Kevin Nolan last week, the former Dublin wing-back painted a picture of how the culture of constant improvement permeates through this squad; how, within minutes of the 2013 win over Mayo, individuals on the fringes were already looking to the future.
"Lads were walking in after that All-Ireland and were asking the question of the coaches 'what have I got to do now to put me in a better position to be a starter for the next year?'," he said. "And the season is only finished. That's the commitment they would be putting in."
The year-round cycle of preparation is constant, and if recent history is anything to gauge by the Dubs won't be sitting too comfortably on their laurels.
Colleagues of one player had their eyes opened when a lunch tray landed at his place of work from Dublin's official food partners just a few weeks after last year's All-Ireland win. One thing for such a special dietary facility to be in place 'in season' but beyond that?
Other players who strayed off the prescribed dietary pathway were checked by regular scanning to detect adverse percentages. All the time Dublin have an eye on the future.
Amidst the changes to the starting team last Saturday evening, a small but very significant alteration to the Dublin bench was announced, with Colm Basquel's elevation in place of Tomas Brady.
Brady has been a willing footsoldier through all four seasons on Gavin's squad without making a breakthrough, but Basquel had maintained his rate of improvement as a line-breaking half-forward that was so evident during Ballyboden's Dublin, Leinster and All-Ireland triumphs and then the Dubs' Leinster U-21 win that followed.
That U-21 team wasn't in the same category as previous teams but it could throw up jewels in Con O'Callaghan and Basquel. How close to action was O'Callaghan last Saturday evening?
Bernard Brogan and Paul Flynn can expect to be under even more sustained attack on a couple of new fronts next season.
At the head of all this, Gavin is taking himself into the pantheon of great Gaelic football managers, joining Kevin Heffernan and Mickey Harte as a three-time All-Ireland senior winner and just one behind Sean Boylan. Even Mick O'Dwyer required five seasons to rack up his first three, something Gavin has done in four.
It is a measure of his management skills that he has been able to keep the components of a squad all pulling in the same direction over this four-year period. Working with the best players can often provide more challenges than dealing with a threadbare squad.
At times, notably after the league final win, a tough line had to be taken with Diarmuid Connolly and Philly McMahon, who had both been whipped off in that game. After the drawn game two weeks ago, Gavin is understood to have delivered his most frank appraisal to both his team and backroom staff.
There's a balance to be struck with players on the periphery too.
Mick Fitzsimons played the first All-Ireland final of this cycle in 2011 but watched the start of the next three from the bench. He was first-choice in the Pat Gilroy era but in Gavin's 24 championship games in charge up to last Saturday evening he had started just three. Injury was a factor in 2013 but he just didn't seem to fit the skill specification sought by this management.
On Saturday he was restored to a championship starting team for the first time in two years and thrived in the conditions to earn the official man of the match award.
Cormac Costello could easily have drifted too. Star of the 2012 All-Ireland minor winning team, he's had just one start in those 24 games and has been used sparingly but his explosive introduction to lock down Saturday's replay came on the back of an impressive in-house game over the previous weekend, when he reputedly scored 2-4.
Maybe that form begs the question as to why he was overlooked for the drawn game, but Costello should now bounce into 2017 off the back of that impact.
The bench impact can't be taken for granted in future years, however, and that arguably leaves Dublin more vulnerable pursuing three in a row.
Even legislating for Jack McCaffrey's return (Rory O'Carroll is thought unlikely to come back) and the push from O'Callaghan and Basquel, Denis Bastick may retire while others may seem themselves stuck on the margins for too long that even a stakeholding in a three-in-a-row pursuit might not sustain them.
But they'll put their titles on the line from a position of strength despite the vulnerability shown over their last three weekends.
The gap may be closing but those last few strides for the chasing pack are by far the longest.