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Standing strong

At different stages along their journey over the last number of years, this Dublin football team have been repeatedly lined up against the wall and condemned. They've been labelled, and relabelled, as big-game chokers, and consistently riddled with bullets from their numerous critics.

The most consistent lashing in all of that time has come from the tongue of Joe Brolly, who has referred to Dublin as "a confidence-builder for the better teams" and "a risk-free match to brush off any remaining cobwebs from the league". Although they won their opening four league games, Brolly still took aim with a bazooka before Dublin's game against Mayo last month.

"Watching Dublin's progress so far this year brings a certain sense of déjà vu," said Brolly.

"They are cruising. As has been the case with Dublin teams over the last 20 years, they are looking damn good in March ... Yet, as the years pass, winning in the biggest games gets harder and harder. They cannot be divorced from what has gone on before."

Brolly then went on to outline how "Dublin began choking" in the early 1990s, before reciting the sorrowful mysteries of Dublin football ever since. Although Dublin hammered Meath and beat Cork, their 1995 All-Ireland success still took a hit, with Brolly claiming that Dublin "fell over the line against a one-man Tyrone team, courtesy of a dodgy decision".

By the time Brolly reached 2010, he was dropping napalm: "Last year, Dublin had two big tests. The first was against a mediocre Meath, yet they didn't just beat Dublin, they murdered them. That should not have been possible against genuine contenders. The second test was in a way easier, but they still failed it. (The Cork defeat) was another sensational collapse."

When he finally got around to assessing their summer prospects, Brolly more or less dismissed Dublin's unbeaten league record. "The Dubs are in a comfort zone," said Brolly. "The blue skies of the league suit them fine but the thunderclouds of championship are gathering."

Brolly is a respected analyst, but his general assessment was seriously flawed. For a start, it was a massive oversight to say that Dublin had only two tests last summer when they beat Armagh and Tyrone, two sides they had failed to beat in five previous championship meetings.

Along with hitching the failures of the past to this side's wagon, it was also unfair of Brolly to compare this side's spring form with that of Dublin teams of the last 20 years, when the county reached just two league finals (Division 1) in that time span.

The real tests will come later in the summer, but this team have already shown that they're different from any Dublin league side of the last 10 years. Their goalscoring record alone proves that fact.

Prior to this season, Dublin had averaged just six goals in their previous 10 league campaigns. In those 10 seasons, no team in the top two divisions managed to hit more than 12 goals in the regular campaign; Dublin have now blown that statistic to smithereens with 16 goals this spring.

Moreover, they are only the third team in the last 10 years to go through Division 1 unbeaten. A team with a win-rate of just 35pc away from home in the league between 2005-09 now has a win-rate of 71pc.

For a side that once could hardly buy a win against Ulster teams, Dublin have now recorded six successive competitive victories against northern opposition. With all those statistics, how can Brolly say this Dublin side is the same as past sides?

There's no denying that last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork was a complete collapse. Yet the nature of that defeat was also bound up in the progress they made last season, which was primarily down to a serious ideological re-evaluation of their style of play.

Analysing the data and trends from their seven championship games last year, it was clear that Dublin were not as systematically efficient as Tyrone, Armagh or Kerry were in their pomp, because so many of their players were trying to adjust to a new defensive style so quickly.

One of the chief concerns with trying to establish that new blanket defensive and counter-attacking template in one season was getting the timing right in the tackle.

That takes time to perfect and hone and Dublin were prone to conceding frees; prior to the All-Ireland semi-final, they'd conceded 164 frees, an average of 27 per game.

Against Cork, Dublin conceded 31 frees but 12 of those were scoreable and Cork registered 1-7 from that total. Conversely, Cork conceded just two scoreable frees and that comparison was ultimately the difference.

The contrast in discipline between the two sides was also huge. Coming into the Cork game, Dublin had received 29 yellow cards, 12 more than the opposition. That indiscipline nearly cost them against Wexford and it would have cost them against Tyrone through stricter refereeing. It finally did in the All-Ireland semi-final when Dublin picked up one red and six yellow cards in comparison to Cork's one yellow.

From the outset of this season, though, there has been more emphasis on being more disciplined in the tackle, particularly inside their own 45-metre line. Before their league game against Cork, Dublin noted that Cork had scored nine of their 17 frees in their previous game against Kerry.

On the night, Dublin were happy to back off and see if Cork could beat them with scores from play. They couldn't; Cork registered just 0-2 from frees.

Although they've been conceding more scores in general, Dublin have still conceded seven less scores from frees than they did last spring. However, Pat Gilroy has repeatedly referred to Dublin's higher concession ratio: they have shipped 17 points more than last year's league.

Part of that has been down to Dublin playing their home games in the wide-open spaces of Croke Park, where lower spring fitness levels haven't allowed players to close down space as quickly.

Conversely, though, Dublin have been cutting loose up front. Although a greater attacking thrust hasn't been discussed this year -- and reverting to last year's system is something Dublin have placed more focus on since the shoot-out against Mayo -- the emphasis has been on a more expansive game.

For a start, they have been picking more natural forwards and have mostly been playing with at least four attackers up front. They're no longer as dependent on Bernard Brogan for scores and he has become as much a provider as a scorer -- he gave the last pass for four of their six goals against Cork and Kerry.

Brogan's first instinct 90pc of the time last year was to shoot, but he has far more support around him now and Dublin's overall scoring spread has increased by 29pc from last year's league.

Brogan's work rate has increased dramatically, but he has repeatedly spoken about how much of a team ethic Gilroy has instilled in the side.

After they played Tyrone in last year's league, Brolly made reference to Diarmuid Connolly as a "luxury" player, who clearly didn't fit into Dublin's system. Connolly was gone before the beginning of the championship, but his outstanding form in the club championship rekindled the sense that Dublin couldn't afford to forget about him.

Connolly knows now that he is in the last-chance saloon -- as much with the players as management -- but his work rate has improved dramatically: he has notched 4-9 from play so far this spring.

Connolly isn't the only returning old boy. Paul Casey, Declan Lally and Tomas Quinn have all got sustained game time because Gilroy has continued to show his loyalty to in-form players over the last 18 months -- no matter their age or experience.

After last year's extensive trawl for talent through trial matches, there was no need to spread the net as wide again. Most of the new faces that have appeared this year have come off last year's All-Ireland U-21 winning team, most notably Sean Murray, James McCarthy, Darragh Nelson and Nicky Devereux.

Similar to last year, their training has been just as intense, with regular early morning sessions, but Mickey Whelan's training emphasis hasn't changed: it's mostly based around speed work and they never do a running drill without a ball.


When Whelan first got involved in 2009, he admitted in a private conversation how entrenched the attitude towards physicality was in the Dublin squad.

The group dynamic for that Dublin side was bent towards winning an All-Ireland, not towards being role models or inspirations. Their infamous 'Blue Book' listed being "more cynical" among the positives in the feedback section.

Yet, while Dublin's collective approach, as with many teams, was based on a siege mentality, where players did what they had to do, that policy didn't fit well with everyone.

Although Paul Caffrey's side never got the credit they deserved -- especially the 2007 team, which narrowly lost to Kerry -- that team had an unpopular image.

Although this team have largely changed the template of Dublin football to a more defensive style, they have also changed the culture surrounding the perception of Dublin teams -- the football county that everyone loved to hate has now become popular and many people would like to see them win an All-Ireland.

That will ultimately define Dublin -- an All-Ireland defines everything in the context of perception, especially for big teams.

Until Dublin achieve that goal, they will always be a handy target for critics like Joe Brolly. But they're certainly on the right road to finally achieving that ultimate goal.

Irish Independent

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