The end of the beginning
Jim Gavin is looking to build a legacy as Dublin manager, writes John O'Brien
The one unanswered question is why. Why a game in a low-key competition in the middle of January, with teams still emerging from their winter cocoon, should have turned into such a spiky, fractious affair. A match that, in several cases, pitted Dub against Dub, friend against friend, so fiercely contested that it produced a black card and a straight red as well as the biting incident that subsequently earned Dublin wing-forward Jason Whelan an eight-week ban.
There are probably no easy answers. Before the game, DCU manager Niall Moyna spoke of the "symbiotic relationship" that exists between the college and the Dublin senior football team and yet it could have been that Moyna's presence and that of Michael Kennedy, both former members of the Dublin set-up, lent the encounter a higher intensity. Maybe the DCU players needed no greater incentive than the chance to have a cut at the Dubs and the reigning All-Ireland champions.
None of that is to diminish the severity of Whelan's crime, of course, a momentary lapse of reason that will be of minor inconvenience to Dublin but deprive the Ballymun forward of whatever slim hopes he had of breaking into the fold for the summer defence of their title. In the rush to condemn the apparent leniency of the Leinster Council's punishment, we should be mindful of the longer-term price Whelan will likely pay.
That won't be sufficient for those who wanted a harsher penalty or the online vigilantes screaming for a lifetime ban. It may be a weakness of the GAA's disciplinary code that there is no specific entry for biting, but we should also bear in mind that the current case involved an alleged offence for which there was neither a first-hand account from the referee nor any supporting video evidence. There was a due process that had to be followed.
It is also, by way of comparison, the same punishment that was ultimately handed down to Dylan Hartley when the England hooker bit Stephen Ferris on the arm during the 2012 Six Nations. Hartley was, in fact, initially banned for 12 weeks, but that was reduced to eight on appeal. There was no supporting video evidence on that occasion either, although Ferris had shown the teeth-marks on his arm to referee, Nigel Owens, immediately after the incident took place.
In Whelan's case, it is believed there was no conclusive evidence of biting. It's thought Whelan had both his hands held by one DCU player while another approached him from behind catching the Dublin player in such a way that his arm is extended around his mouth and it is at that point that the alleged incident is claimed to have taken place.
Of course, provocation is not much of a mitigating factor when it comes to such a deplorable act and, in their defence, nobody in Dublin tried to argue as much. Páraic Duffy's harsh comments on the alleged biting of Donegal player Paddy McBrearty last year would have irritated them, coming as they did on the morning Whelan's judgement was to be handed down. As it turned out, though, had Whelan's punishment been far more draconian, it is unlikely they would have vigorously protested.
While he won't have welcomed the enhanced scrutiny, Jim Gavin could at least console himself with the knowledge that Whelan's lapse might yet serve one useful purpose. Before games it has always been the Dublin manager's custom to remind his players of the absolute need for discipline and, whatever else it achieves, Whelan's suspension will reinforce that message in a way Gavin's own words never could.
Think back a year to when Denis Bastick was red-carded after retaliating against a Kildare player in the 2013 O'Byrne Cup final. The suspension that followed allowed Cian O'Sullivan to lay down a marker for the right to partner Michael Darragh Macauley in midfield and ultimately consigned Bastick to cameo roles come the business end of the All-Ireland championship. "The timing wasn't great," he reflected ruefully during the summer.
What we shouldn't forget, though, is that, under Gavin's composed stewardship, Dublin have become a far more rigid and disciplined outfit than they were previously, a blessing that bodes well in their efforts to become the first team since Kerry in 2007 to win back-to-back All-Ireland titles. It clearly still rankles that they brought such a brilliant brand of football to last year's championship and yet, bar one exception, still came out on the wrong side of the free count in every match.
Clearly, Gavin suffers from no overbearing ego and shows little vested interest in how he is publicly portrayed. Yet the feeling that Dublin weren't sufficiently acknowledged for the style and panache they brought to last year's championship is deeply felt within the camp. That frustration spilled over after the All-Ireland final when Gavin complained of having to play the referee as well as Mayo and it is a theme that might well follow them into the new season.
Whatever the righteousness of those grievances, it seems palpably unfair that Dublin should be remembered for 10 messy minutes at the end of the All-Ireland final, as unseemly as it was, rather than for the pulsating football that adorned the rest of their season. For whatever reason, the accolades so lustily showered upon Jim McGuinness a year previously were slow to be flung Gavin's way. Virtually reclusive in his media dealings, it's no surprise it is taking time for his qualities to truly sink in.
Gavin won't care a whit about that, of course. Nor about the fact that RTé questionably overlooked him in favour of Davy Fitzgerald for the manager of the year gong at their end-of-year shindig. A chance to achieve something memorable follows him this year as he seeks to become not just the first manager since Billy Morgan to retain an All-Ireland title, but the first ever Dublin manager to do so. When they last achieved it in 1977 it was Tony Hanahoe, of course, and not Kevin Heffernan who guided them.
Not that this will weigh heavily upon Gavin either. "It's more down to the players now realising that it takes a lot more to go for it a second time and retain it a second time," was Philly McMahon's take on it during the week. "Sometimes we don't like saying it's about retaining something, it's about going for it again. It's in our hands to go and get it again instead of trying to hold onto it."
Less than seven days after Mayo had been seen off, Gavin was already in contact with key members of his backroom team, already beginning to outline what it would take to reach the summit a second time. And yet the changes he has made have been subtle ones. Two members of his backroom team, Kennedy and statistician Ray Boyne, have departed, both citing time pressure. Neither is being replaced and that suggests a certain desire on Gavin's behalf to create an even tighter, more structured unit.
They begin the defence of their league title against Kerry in Croke Park next Saturday, a re-run of last August's sweltering All-Ireland semi-final, and it wouldn't be a shock if Gavin's team wasn't quite up to the job this time. Not merely because Dublin are missing a host of front-line players – Bernard Brogan, Paddy Andrews, Eoghan O'Gara, Dean Rock, James McCarthy, Ger Brennan, Paul Flynn, all absent for one reason or
another – more that the intensity required to sustain another double haul might not be achievable this time around. Something simply has to give.
Encores in championship football are becoming a rarer phenomenon and the reason isn't difficult to understand. The modern game exacts such a physical and emotional toll on players that recapturing the momentum after a winning year is a fiendishly difficult trick to master. We thought Jim McGuinness, so erudite and innovative, might manage it, but how surprising was it that a team built around such a robust, physically demanding game plan should return and look so flat and insipid when the heat was turned up last summer.
On Friday, Karl Lacey made some extraordinary comments which, whether intentional or not, did not paint McGuinness in a highly flattering light. "Every man was trying their best," Lacey said of their quarter-final rout against Mayo, "and we just didn't have it in the legs, didn't have the endurance and didn't have the speed or sharpness. You're looking over at the sideline and asking Jim, 'What the hell's going on here?' Jim didn't have the answers, that's just the way it was."
No doubt Gavin will have seen those words and heeded the warning. Some day this year a team will put it up to Dublin and his players, just like Lacey, will look to the line and ask tough questions of their manager. How far they advance is a glorious mystery waiting to be unravelled, of course, but it's hard not to believe they go forth, at least, with a man who won't be short of answers when the time comes.