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‘There must be a hunger’

IT’S the great unknown of the Dublin footballers which will remain as such until they either fulfill their widely-expected fortune and fail this summer or alternatively upset the odds, predictions and all modern wisdom and succeed in their quest to retain Sam Maguire.

Do they possess the necessary hunger to go again? Did the events of last September soften their bellies for another, possibly tougher fight? How do these shortfalls manifest themselves amongst defending champions?

Can Pat Gilroy identify the rot in time if, as widely predicted, it begins to set? And with Louth expected to be routinely culled in Croke Park at the weekend, is there sufficient opposition in Leinster to expose Dublin’s newly acquired flaws prior to a provincial final, at which stage it could be too late?

“It’s very difficult to measure fatigue and mental fatigue, in particular,” says Brian Mullins, a key member of the |last Dublin team to win back-to-back |All-Irelands – in 1977.

“I think in all sports – you witness it in soccer and you witness in rugby – the high-achievers, the successful outfits do, at times, struggle with motivation and having to sustain levels of energy and commitment and dedication that |is required.

“In a current situation, you look at Leinster rugby and you see they’re capable of producing quality performance after quality performance, and that to some extent in GAA, teams can get away with less quality during the league at different times of the year. They can try and make sure when it comes to Championship that they’re on the button.

“But it’s a difficult thing to measure,” he adds of the great ‘hunger’ debate. “And it’s a very difficult thing for a manager to measure in a team in training, whether they’re exactly where they need to be psychologically.

“So I would say the difficulty of repeating a performance like last year |is in the mental preparation.”

Mullins was in Croke Park yesterday to take his umpteenth voyage down memory lane, back to his awesome zenith in the ’70s. Side-by-side – as he was so often on the pitch – with Jack O’Shea, the two great midfielders of their overlapping generations recapped the fabled 1977 All-Ireland semi-final for the launch of eircom’s GAA Championship Timeline.

Quite obviously, the football scene is dramatically different nowadays.

But with Dublin about to open up their All-Ireland title defence this weekend, Mullins was on hand to ascertain just how different a proposition retaining the Sam Maguire is now compared to 35 years ago when they last managed the feat under Tony Hanahoe.

“I would say it’s more competitive now, as evidenced in the last 20 |years,” the St Vincent’s man explained. “There is only one team who have put back-to-back Championships in football.”

Then, Dublin and Kerry were considered head, shoulders and body above the best of what the rest of Ireland had to offer, |and their seasons revolved around in-evitable Croke Park tussles which were sewing a new rich thread into the tapestry of the GAA.

At the time, Kerry required just four wins to lift Sam. Dublin had a slightly longer distance to travel, but were rarely tested within Leinster. No one got a second chance either – the biggest difference according to Mullins.

“It’s part of the nature of the competition, the way the format has changed. It’s a good thing. It’s not going to be any one team dominated. It could be that there are a number of teams near the top.

“I think that’s because the format changed. Since then it’s a major contributory factor.”

Clearly then, Mullins is a believer in the ‘it’s-all-about-whichever-team-delivers-on-the-day’ theory.

“You can spend hours and weeks and months preparing on the training field,” |he insisted. “But you have to produce it once for one hour at a point or place and that’s the difficulty for teams, to get to the starting line in the right frame of mind repeatedly.

“Sometimes certain people think what works for them and what doesn’t work for them and then they wonder why. I don’t know whether it’s as much in assessing opposition as it is about your own camp to understand what it is that delivers performance.

“There always has to be a hunger,” he adds. “Kilkenny seem to continue to deliver on the hunger.”