Frank Roche: Dubs could face a Rocky Road ahead
THE Allianz Football League is almost upon us and, after scanning newspaper previews and eavesdropping on radio predictions, you could be forgiven for thinking it's almost a done deal. The invincible Dubs, it seems, are destined to rule on.
Why? Because they've such a dizzy array of elite options. And because they have four home games once more (eh, they actually had five last spring owing to Kildare not being able to hold their game in Newbridge). And because... well... they're not alone reigning league champions but All-Ireland holders to boot. In other words, the team to beat.
But that latter statement of fact can be a double-edged sword. Being the team to beat may fill you with confidence, but it also imbues the opposition with serious incentive. Fresh (or frazzled) from the Sam Maguire celebratory circuit, do you still have the energy to go again when faced by a mirror-image of your 2013 self?
We all know the historically anaemic record of All-Ireland holders in defending their crown. Most of us are similarly au fait with the direct correlation between spring and September success: six of the last 11 Division One champions went on to lift Sam.
What is often overlooked is the record of All-Ireland champions in the league campaign directly following their crowning glory.
If you're a Sky Blue diehard making a beeline for the bookies, you might consider closing your wallet after dissecting the following stats.
p Whereas Kerry (in 2007) are the only two-in-a-row SF champions since Cork went back-to-back in 1990, the league record of |All-Ireland holders is underwhelming. When Cork launched that improbable second half comeback to topple Dublin in the 2011 NFL final, they set a modern benchmark as the only All-Ireland holders over the past
quarter-century (since Meath in 1988) to win the league.
p Statistically, in fact, All-Ireland holders are more liable to be relegated. That fate befell Donegal last April, and Kerry in 2001, while the Kingdom ended up in Division Three of a revamped league after an ill-starred '98 spring campaign.
p Not all champions suffer a spring hangover but, since the turn of the century, Meath (2000) and Kerry (2008) have lost league finals; Armagh (2003) and Tyrone (2004) have lost semi-finals; while the men in possession of Sam |frequently fail to even make the play-offs.
When the latter happens, of course, it is seen as no big deal – the champions have bigger fish to fry. And yet subsequent summer events only reinforce just how |difficult it is to go back-to-back.
On that score, it's illuminating to recall some post-match comments from Pat Gilroy during Dublin's erratic league campaign of 2012.
“Our effort in the second half wasn't what it should have been,” said Gilroy after watching his |All-Ireland champions open their league campaign with a six-point defeat to Kerry that February.
“The intensity of Down in the first half really gave us a lesson,” he admitted after a March defeat in Newry.
“We have to regroup and sit down on Tuesday night and sort out a lot of things because, if they continue that, they won't be long in the championship either,” was the then-manager's stark warning after a horror-show 12-point capitulation to Mayo.
Quite a few pundits believe Dublin circa 2014 are different, and there's no doubting their latent potential to go further than most in defence of their titles. After all, just consider the depth of resources at Jim Gavin's disposal – in contrast to Donegal, whose heavyweight first 15 was fatally compromised by injuries and fatigue last season.
And yet, if you hark back 12 months, how often did you hear Donegal were also “different” because of their managerial |X-factor, Jim McGuinness?
Injury, fatigue, the fickle hand of fate and faltering appetite – all of these could yet conspire against Gavin's 2013 trailblazers. Or maybe Dublin will be just as good but an even better wannabe will spring from the pack.
No one said it was going to be easy. And if they did... don't believe them.