Martin Breheny: Into the east
IN 1996, Dublin had a disappointing league campaign but began the defence of their All-Ireland title with a 10-point win over Westmeath. It was assumed that normal service had been resumed, but seven weeks later Dublin lost the Leinster final to Meath.
It would be six years before they next won the Leinster title and 15 years before they hosted Sam Maguire again.
In 2012, Dublin had a poor league campaign but began their All-Ireland defence with a 16-point win over Louth. Normal service resumed?
It may well be, but nobody -- and that includes the Dublin camp -- can be sure if the sense of obsession that empowered them to build their way carefully to All-Ireland glory last year remains as strong.
The real test will only emerge when they are facing a serious crisis in a game where the opposition are in no way fazed by Dublin's status as defending champions.
Louth's resistance four weeks ago was so embarrassingly weak, it was virtually non-existent. It taught Dublin nothing about themselves or their capacity to become the first county since Kerry in 2007 to retain the All-Ireland title. All the component parts looked impressive, but it has to be seen in the context of an opposition which drowned in the shallow end.
Defending an All-Ireland title requires a different mindset to winning the first one. On the plus side, being champions dramatically increases confidence reserves. That's often enough to sink lesser sides and can be important, too, as the challenges become more demanding.
On the minus side, champions find that top opposition raise their game. Kerry have always been pretty good at coping with that, but others have not. Even Tyrone, a team with a reputation as hard-edged enforcers, didn't retain the All-Ireland title from three attempts (2004, '06 and '09) over the last decade.
One of the problems Pat Gilroy alluded to during the league was Dublin's failure to maintain intensity at the levels required to match Division 1 opposition. They lost to Kerry, Down, Mayo and Cork and while that might seem irrelevant now, it has left that quartet with warm feelings of their spring encounters with Dublin, while others will have noted those results with interest.
Admittedly, Dublin were without Bernard Brogan for the league, a loss which probably cost them points. He signalled his intentions and his well-being with a cracking display in the Louth game, albeit against a leaky defence.
Unlike 1996, when defeat in Leinster meant the end of Dublin's All-Ireland title defence, they are still operating in two-chance territory -- although one suspects that it's their intention to remain on the high road.
They have lost only three of 29 Leinster games over the last decade, which is the best provincial record of any county. They will now be determined to maintain that dominance in order to springboard themselves into the All-Ireland series as winners, rather than trying to negotiate the qualifiers. After all, it's difficult enough to retain the All-Ireland title via the shortest available route rather than through the back door.
TIME TO DISCARD
'BEST OF THE REST' TAG
TOM Coffey was in generous tribute mode when he spoke of Kildare.
As new Offaly manager, he experienced Kildare from the closest of quarters in Portlaoise two weeks ago and described them thus: "They have serious athletes; they're just a machine. At the minute, they'd nearly remind you of the All Blacks, the way that they've prepared."
All valid assessments, based on how Kildare performed last Sunday week, but then Offaly are in a pretty fragile state right now. Their clash with Kildare was Coffey's first competitive outing as manager, so clearly he is in the earliest stage of a long rebuilding process. With the exception of Dublin, Offaly could not have had tougher first-round opponents.
As for likening the Lilywhites to the All Blacks, it's not immediately apparent who is the Richie McCaw or Dan Carter of the Kildare team, but we know the point Coffey was making.
His portrayal of Kildare as a momentum-based juggernaut which eventually wears down most opposition would meet with general agreement across the football world. However, the key words are "most opposition", because if Kildare are to press on and win titles, then they need to take their game to the next level.
They have won 17 championship games over the past four seasons but, with the exception of Meath, none of the 12 counties they beat won a provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland, in that period. And, with respect to Meath's 2010 Leinster success, it will always be followed by a giant asterisk and an explanation of the ludicrous circumstances in which Louth were robbed of the title.
That's why, until such time as Kildare slay one of the championship's big beasts, doubts will remain over whether they possess the required finesse to cross the class line that separates worthy contenders from real champions.
Admittedly, Kildare haven't enjoyed much luck on some big occasions. Down's crucial goal in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, which Kildare lost by a point, should not have been allowed; Dublin were extremely lucky to be awarded the last-minute free that won last year's Leinster semi-final and, later on, Kildare had a perfectly good goal disallowed in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal, which they lost by a point in extra-time.
Kieran McGeeney might feel entitled to echo the Mario Balotelli mantra 'why always me?' but he is also pragmatic enough to know that, however cruel the circumstances of past defeats, Kildare will ultimately be judged on how the current project ends up.
If it's to be advanced, they need to start beating opposition who have been rated ahead of them and not merely confirming their status as 'the best of the rest'.
MANAGERS PAY FOR
THE FAILURE OF OTHERS
TWO years ago, Meath hit Dublin for 5-9 in the Leinster semi-final, went on to take the title and promptly lost the All-Ireland quarter-final to Kildare. It was the first of five successive championship and league defeats by Kildare, establishing beyond doubt the Lilywhites' right to be regarded as chief challengers to Dublin in Leinster.
That doesn't fit easily with Meath, and it gets worse. On the basis of their erratic performances this year, it's difficult to be sure just how far down the Leinster table Meath have fallen. The attempt to have Seamus McEnaney replaced as manager after Meath were relegated to Division 3 in April was nothing short of embarrassing, with 'Banty' about the only one to come out of it with his honour intact.
He's not one for stepping back and, when it came to decision time, enough of the Meath County Board decided it would be unwise to change boss in mid-season. It was all very messy and certainly not what would be expected from a county like Meath, even if they have been hit by all sorts of managerial turbulence since Sean Boylan's departure.
It's as if his 23 years in charge left Meath unable to conduct the routine business of changing managers with any degree of coherence. And, even when new appointments were made, they often came under immediate pressure. Nor was silverware enough to impress the board. So much so that Eamonn O'Brien was voted out a few months after presiding, albeit in very fortunate circumstances, over Meath's first Leinster title for nine years in 2010.
Meath's capitulation to Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final was an influential factor in that decision, providing another example of the Royals' difficulty in accepting the reality which was becoming evident all around them.
Despite the trauma this year has brought, 'Banty' is in the ultimate no-lose situation in what is most likely to be his final season with Meath. The supporters are expecting little so if even one big scalp was delivered -- with Kildare the prime target tomorrow -- it would rescue what has been a dismal season so far.
Ultimately, though, Meath need to stop blaming managers. The county has to look at its supply lines or, more specifically, why they have become so badly entangled.
One Leinster minor title and not a single appearance in the final by the U-21s over the past decade points to a serious problem at underage level. Senior managers can't fix that but they're paying the price for the failure of others.
QUALIFIER ROUTE OFFERS REAL POSSIBILITIES
IF Wexford hadn't gifted a goal to Dublin in last year's Leinster final, would the season have taken a completely different turn for both counties?
Would Wexford have gone on to win the provincial title for the first time since 1945 and would Dublin's momentum have been disrupted to such an extent as to fatally wound their All-Ireland bid? It was the second successive year in which Wexford's joust with Dublin left them with serious regrets.
In 2010, Wexford led Dublin by seven points after 47 minutes of the Leinster quarter-final but were hauled back to parity in normal time and well beaten in extra-time.
In fairness, Wexford didn't allow that experience to weaken their resolve last year but, at the same time, they must now have reached a stage where beating Dublin is almost an end in itself.
If they could achieve it when the latter are All-Ireland champions, it would be a double triumph. However, the chances are that they will lose tomorrow and take their place in round two of the qualifiers next Saturday week.
And that's where it could get very interesting, but only if Wexford improve their relationship with the back door. It looked made for counties like Wexford when first introduced in 2001 but, rather surprisingly, they are in the bottom third in terms of qualifier wins.
They have won only six of 18 games in 11 seasons, a disappointing return, which is much inferior to their record in Leinster. Quite why that is so remains a mystery, but it's certainly an area where Wexford need to improve.
Wexford will, no doubt, bristle at the suggestion that they should be thinking of the qualifiers while still in the Leinster championship. It's a fair point, especially since they believe they should have won the Leinster final last year, but they may well find it a whole lot harder to stay with Dublin this time.
With the exception of Laois and Galway, form from Division 1 and the top end of Division 2 has held solid in the championship so far, so it's asking a lot of Wexford to break that trend against such a powerful outfit as Dublin. However, what's really important for them is that they come out of the game with their confidence intact and set about making the qualifiers work for them.
They have enough talent to make that happen.