Hype machine muted for good reason
HAVING been fortunate enough to be on holidays over the past couple of weeks, I have been able to read closely the build-up to Sunday's game and one thing that struck me was the fact that Dublin are not being hyped up; not by the media, not by the commercial sector and not even by their own fans.
Commentators are still, understandably, trying to sharpen their focus on Dublin's key assets such as Bernard Brogan and their new defensive approach but there have been no suggestions anywhere that there is an unstoppable momentum going to see Dublin through to the All-Ireland final on the crest of a new blue wave.
This is a massive change from the past decade. The notion that 'this is their year' has completely vanished. The normal snipers ready to build them up and shoot them down are struggling to find a suitable target.
Well, we could point to Dublin's new no-nonsense style, which is in sharp contrast to the old swashbuckling approach so loved by commentators and, unfortunately, opponents. We could also make the point that most of the bandwagon merchants trying to buy a bit of cheap publicity on the back of an unfamiliar squad wouldn't really know Templeogue Synge Street from 42nd Street.
However, much as I'd love to think this was the case, the reason is probably much more clear-cut. In a word, Cork.
With the experience of having already competed in five All-Ireland semi-finals on the trot and with the old enemy out of the way, Cork have remained rock solid odds-on favourites to beat Dublin on Sunday. I fully expected the odds to fluctuate as the game drew closer but they haven't budged.
This means that whatever buzz is around the capital is dampened by the fact that expectations remain low. Hype is generated by expectation, realistic or otherwise.
Being from Dublin of course I won't get away with being a cute hoor like my country colleagues so I'm not going to beat around the bush. Brilliant as the victory over Tyrone was, Dublin are up against it big time on Sunday and any other assessment is nonsense.
So let's look at the reasons why Cork are expected to win.
Cork don't have any particular reasons to fear Dublin based on recent encounters. I was in Pairc Ui Rinn the night they blew us away during the league and I presume they will be confident they have the midfield power to counter Dublin's kick-out strategy.
Kerry showed last year that by putting pressure on Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs you can upset Dublin's game plan. Tyrone failed to do that the last day but we can be sure Cork will have their homework done. The fact they have so many big men to contest anything in the air seriously limits Dublin's options.
The case for Dublin being put forward over the past fortnight has centred on Cork's erratic form this summer and the fact they haven't really found a settled team. Both facts are accurate but this assessment assumes Cork won't produce a big performance on Sunday. We know only too well that the sight of a Dublin jersey at Croker can be just the tonic for a slumbering giant -- just look at Kerry and Tyrone over the past two years.
The injury to Graham Canty aside, Conor Counihan will have found the Roscommon quarter-final a useful outing as his second-half introductions all played their way into his plans.
With his hand forced by injury, I think he will be confident that his starting 15 on Sunday is the correct selection.
It's a 20-man game and Counihan possesses the strongest panel of the remaining four counties. Being able to introduce serious players like Nicholas Murphy, Donncha O'Connor and John Miskella against Roscommon turned the game. Dublin have a decent bench but it is not of the same calibre.
It is accepted that Cork's firepower is also more potent and they have a better spread of finishers. Daniel Goulding and Colm O'Neill are potential match-winners and we're almost assuming that Dublin will struggle to contain Pearse O'Neill.
I'm not 100pc sure about this. In fact, one of Cork's proven problems against Kerry at Croke Park in the past is not being able to engineer scores at crucial times. Goals have been a problem for them too this season. Counihan has tinkered a lot with his forward division -- moving Paul Kerrigan around is an example -- and I still think they carry the ball too much. Dublin will be happy to let Cork have possession so long as they force them to shoot from outside the danger zone.
Sunday's clash is a little like 1989 in that it is pitching a relatively inexperienced Dublin team against a far more streetwise Cork squad. That day we blew a big lead, I got the line and while we kept battling, we ultimately paid a heavy price for not dealing with Cork's comeback.
Responding to adverse situations has to be as much part of the new system as anything else.
Look at Kildare; 1-3 down against Meath and their leader off injured after two minutes. They didn't panic. Kerry, in the final against Cork last year, shipped an opening salvo but patiently chipped away before closing the door on Cork.
This is something we haven't traditionally been good at in Dublin and we can be sure, with bad weather forecast for Sunday, Pat Gilroy's men will find themselves having to deal with adversity, whether it's losing a key player or shipping a couple of goals. How they react will be the next big test for this improving squad.
Cork were my fancies for the All-Ireland this season and remain so, much as I'd love to say otherwise. They've been the team expected to break the Kerry/Tyrone dominance for the past few years and, really, this contest is in their own hands.
However, they are not without faults and Dublin know this. I've little doubt Dublin will have studied closely their performance against Kerry in last year's final, which revealed their limitations despite the great expectations going into the final.
But we've also seen that when Cork get a run at you, they can be irrepressible. This is my fear for Dublin on Sunday. Ross McConnell and Michael Darragh Macauley face the biggest test of their new partnership in the land of the giants. Their workload will be ridiculous.
Up until this game, Dublin's season has been all about incremental progress. A new system yielded a good league and a solid qualifier run. Now it is about having the confidence to grab the opportunity that has arisen. There is no room for sentiment in sport.
Gilroy has done what he said he would; reshape the team and change the approach. Cian O'Sullivan replacing Barry Cahill is not surprising but, if there is proper belief in the system, Cahill must be ready to come in and do a job on Sunday.
To have any chance of reaching the final confidence is critical; Dublin must believe in the system and in themselves.
For Cork, the scenario is even more stark. While not playing well this year, they know that, as a panel, they will never have a better chance of making up for the pain of their recent losses. Kerry are gone and if there is an All-Ireland in this team, they simply must beat Dublin.
If Cork had been told at the end of the National League that they would reach a point where only Dublin, Kildare or Down stood between them and capturing Sam, the open-top bus would have been booked in advance.
That scenario now places a heavy burden on Counihan's men who, unlike Dublin's opponents over the past few years, don't have the cover of hype in the capital.
Odds on and facing a team in 'bonus territory', this is Cork's game to lose.
PS: I'd like to pass on my condolences to the family and friends of the late Jim Nolan, who passed away last Friday. A native of Rearcross in Tipp, Jim was a legend of the Sean Treacy's GAA club and a good friend. A great Tipp hurling man who was a big fan of Dublin football. Hopefully you'll be smiling on us on Sunday, Jim. RIP.