One collapse doesn't ruin a summer
AS your playing days disappear further into history, there's no doubt that the championship seems to come around that little bit quicker every year. And with the start of every summer comes an uncomfortable reminder for Dublin's long-suffering supporters and players of their growing exile in the All-Ireland wilderness.
After the League final setback, it was also depressingly familiar that people merely wanted to lash Dublin out of it, or expected former Dublin players to do so, regardless of the circumstances. Most of those first in line to do the kicking were, as usual, people who had predicted they would win.
Yet it was noticeable that the normal depression that accompanies the latest Dublin collapse didn't last very long in the capital, once the reality dawned that it was only April and the real test is still ahead. And more importantly, so is the chance to make amends.
So was the League final -- a useful barometer in recent years -- another catastrophe for Dublin, or a useful lesson for a side on the up? Probably a bit of both.
While the story was similar -- a Dublin collapse in the face of victory -- the circumstances weren't. They had lost their three top forwards on the day, including Bernard Brogan, and two more were ruled out. Two of their top defenders were also missing.
They were also beaten by the All-Ireland champions. Sure it was a Cork side also missing several key players, but they are still an incredibly powerful outfit capable -- even when trailing -- of wearing down the best and are full of the kind of self-belief reserved for champions.
That's not ignoring Dublin's weaknesses, the flaws in the system, poor decision-making, the over-dependence on Brogan or the lack of strength-in-depth in certain areas. But Dublin are a developing squad, one that is still slowly improving, and while the psychological question will remain until they cross the line, they can still take a lot of positives from the League campaign.
I thought that they would have enough to scrape past a weakened Cork and they almost did. But to do so in the circumstances in which the League final unfolded would have been to paper over some of the cracks in the Dublin set-up. A high-profile defeat for Dublin before the championship even starts will silence the b******t going into the summer. And it will make it easier for Gilroy to focus minds on the job ahead.
I would hope that it also encourages the management to review Dublin's defensive system, or at least consider options to vary it. I have been uncomfortable with the style from the outset, although I understand why Dublin and many other counties are playing this way. Gilroy had to address Dublin's hammerings by Tyrone and Kerry and he has done that. However, my problems with the system where pretty much everyone tracks back non-stop are that it wears out players, reduces the responsibility for effective tackling and limits options up front.
For starters, just like last year's All-Ireland semi-final, Dublin had several key men out on their feet against Cork in the League final with 10 minutes still to go. Look how effective Darragh O Se was in his last few years with Kerry by timing his contribution throughout the 70 minutes. Similarly, Brian Dooher and Sean Cavanagh never seemed to run out of steam when the game was in the melting pot.
Cork also have an incredibly strong bench, one capable of bolstering the spine of their team at critical points in a game. You have to be able to match it, regardless of the scoreline.
As for tracking back in numbers, give me one good defender who knows how to tackle any day. Dublin conceded 18 points from play in the League decider, which means that while they're getting men behind the ball, against a team of Cork's power, they are not stopping scores.
Full-backs tearing up the field with their heads down is a waste of energy. A midfielder will need enough in the tank to win the last kick-out, or a high ball under the crossbar. Similarly, why ask an exciting runner with the ball and finisher like Kevin McManamon to do any more running than he does already?
The system invites teams like Cork, who win tons of primary possession, to run at you, make overlaps or win frees -- which is what men like Patrick Kelly and Pearse O'Neill do so well. And players tracking back can get in the way of someone making the tackle.
What I would like to see is Dublin varying their approach as the game unfolds, particularly if they develop a healthy lead. I believe it would be much more effective at that point to apply a more orthodox set-up to ensure that any comeback can be met with a positive response.
Only scores can effectively kill off a comeback, and how often over the past 40 years have we witnessed Kerry crushing a rally by their opponents with critical scores? When you are under pressure, a point from a handy free is still the best release.
However, it's vital that any squad hoping to match Cork later this summer possess strength in depth, particularly around the middle third, where the champions seem capable of dominating any opposition.
This brings us to Kerry, who are probably still most likely to concern Conor Counihan going into the championship. Certainly unlike pretty much every other county, Kerry won't fear Cork.
While the loss of David Moran is a significant blow to Jack O'Connor, the return of Paul Galvin is a perfect boost. What was interesting about last year's exit to Down was the fact that no matter how brilliant Colm Cooper was, he could not carry Kerry through on his own. Had Tomas O Se and Galvin been playing, I've little doubt that they would have turned Down over.
And Galvin is the type of player that Dublin probably lack -- a leader who never wants to stop proving himself, who can never be satisfied with second best but is also a class act in possession. The championship is the ultimate test of a footballer and despite living on the edge, Galvin is close to being the ultimate footballer.
Kerry's belief and ambition is also what marks them apart from the rest and though they don't look the side they were a few years back, particularly in midfield, I believe they will be around to contest the decider with Cork.
While we know that the real business doesn't really begin until August, it's fair to say the provincial preamble is more interesting than previous years. In Leinster we have to factor in an improving Laois, Longford on a high and Kieran McGeeney potentially going head to head with Seamus McEnaney again, if Kildare don't suffer their trademark early championship setback against Wicklow.
Still, it's hard to see anyone stopping a Dublin side smarting from their latest setback. Had the Dubs won the league, they might have been vulnerable.
Along with Dublin, it's Kildare who are most likely to figure again from Leinster later in the national campaign where McGeeney will want to go at least a step further than last year. Despite all the great work McGeeney has done over the past three years, he has yet to deliver silverware. It would be a shame for him to leave the county without a trophy, though he is still likely to remain hot property on the managerial circuit.
In Munster, Cork and Kerry are apart until the final, when we will see how the Kingdom intend to lay down their marker and how they've reacted to watching Cork finally lift Sam. Always compelling, it definitely has an added edge this year.
Up north, the old Ulster minefield might be just as competitive, but it isn't as entertaining as it once was, with the shift in emphasis to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Still it will be interesting to see how Down cope with growing expectation and an opener with Armagh. If they get over that examination, they'll fancy their chances as Tyrone and Donegal are on the opposite side of the draw.
While Donegal are becoming increasingly difficult to beat under Jim McGuinness and have a Division 2 title under their belt, I think Down will take the Ulster title. However, I believe they are some way behind Cork, Kerry and Dublin in terms of All-Ireland prospects.
For me, despite their recent good form, Tyrone remain a team in decline and I cannot see them adding a fourth All-Ireland. Their experience still makes them a threat but it's difficult to see them living with a full-strength Cork side.
With Galway and Mayo still struggling, Connacht remains the poor relation and it's impossible to see any team from the province having a say in the latter stages. With Sligo and Roscommon not making any real progress since last year, I suspect Mayo will reclaim the Connacht title and hope for a kind quarter-final draw.
If Cork, Dublin, Mayo and Down do win their respective titles, it will be interesting to see if the quarter-final jinx strikes again and opens the way for the chasing pack.
Kildare, Donegal and Tyrone may hope so, but with Cork unlikely to lose, any upsets will probably just pave the way for Kerry to renew the ancient rivalry with their neighbours in the final.
It's a familiar pairing, but for me the Rebels are still packing too much for the rest and are primed to make it a 'double double'.