Thursday 17 October 2019

Ciarán Whelan: 'One important factor sets Dublin apart from the pretenders to their crown'

Read Ciarán Whelan every week in The Herald

Dublin celebrate All Ireland title in 2018
Dublin celebrate All Ireland title in 2018

Ciarán Whelan

The hype may not quite be in overdrive just yet with a fairly low-key introduction to the championship in both London and New York last weekend but you can be sure that will address itself in due course once Dublin get their campaign up and running.

Like most of this decade, the focus will primarily centre on the Dubs as they lie on the cusp of history.

The question that’s preoccupying most people is whether Jim Gavin’s men will achieve what no other county has managed, namely achieving the coveted five-in-a-row.

It’s fair to say that Dublin’s form over the spring failed to match that of previous league campaigns but taking any league form into account when assessing the forthcoming championship is fraught with danger.

Granted, Dublin failed to reach the final for the first time since 2012 but most observers would acknowledge that Gavin was far more experimental in his team selection than in previous years and they were proficient when they needed to be.

If we are assuming that the Leinster Championship will be as comfortable a procession as it has been for a long time now – although Meath look a rejuvenated team – then Dublin have a decent amount of time to fine-tune their preparations for the Super 8s.

It’s fair to say that they have work to do but experience tells me that you learn more from your losses than you do from steamrolling the opposition, and I would expect Dublin to make the necessary tweaks to their game in advance of tougher tests down the line.

There is certainly a huge sense of anticipation around the capital as Dublin look to make history.

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Some of the mind games have already started regarding the greater pressure that the players might be under as a result. 

It’s difficult to know how the panel will be affected by such excitement but you can only assume that they will show the same mental toughness and focus that has been such a vital component of their national dominance.

There is a sense that Dublin are not as strong as they used to be and that they may prove vulnerable this year with opponents feeling that they may be susceptible to an aerial assault at the back.

However, the return of Rory O’Carroll may address that perceived concern and with rumours that Diarmuid Connolly may also be involved, it strengthens Dublin’s hand even further.

If both players return to action, there is sufficient time within the Leinster Championship for both to be assimilated back into the team.

There’s no doubt that Dublin are a stronger unit with a fully-fit and fully-focused O’Carroll and Connolly directly involved. 

There are certainly improvements to be made in the coming months and you certainly would like to see Dublin move the ball at greater speed in attack.

But when you look at the fulcrum of the team, you cannot but feel confident in the team’s ability to meet every challenge that’s presented to them.

Players like Brian Fenton, Jonny Cooper, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan are natural leaders and they still look the team to beat when looking at the likely contenders for Sam Maguire.

If they do not manage to reach previous heights, then which county looks best equipped to take advantage?

The obvious place to start is with Mayo, a team that have pushed Dublin harder than any other in recent years and that appear rejuvenated under the management of James Horan.

Their confidence will be enhanced by winning the National League but the question still remains over their depth of talent, especially in attack.

They are still prone to massive inconsistencies and they need to beat Galway in the Connacht Championship, something that has eluded them for a number of years now.

Putting scores on the board when it really matters has been their Achilles heel and I’m not convinced that particular issue has been resolved to make that quantum leap from bridesmaid into bride.

Kerry will no doubt fancy their chances, especially after beating Dublin down in Tralee, but I was hugely disappointed with their performance in the National League final.

They seem to be lacking a plan, and while they are strong up front, with Stephen O’Brien looking very sharp this spring, and David Clifford fully fit, they look vulnerable in defence and Peter Crowley’s season-ending injury will not help.

Tyrone have certainly evolved over the winter and they played a more expansive game during the league. They look to have added a different dynamic to their game since losing to Dublin so comprehensively last September.

They made the most of the ‘mark’ during the league but of course that option is not available this summer.

It’s also possible that they might have shown too much of their hand to their rivals in the past few months.

Galway are possibly more dangerous and they have stayed under the radar this year and they could well prove a threat to any team they face with the excellent forwards that they have in Ian Burke, Shane Walsh and Damien Comer.

They have enjoyed the upper hand on Mayo and will be determined to continue in that vein, and while they could well eliminate one of the main contenders, it’s unlikely that have enough quality to prevail come September.

The same could be said about Donegal, who have increased their depth and can still call on the proven brilliance of Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty.

They do leave themselves open at the back though, as Tyrone so ruthlessly exposed last year, and an Ulster title may be the height of their ambitions this year. Monaghan are another team that have to be respected but it’s going to be very difficult for them to replicate their efforts from last year on what is an ageing panel.

In summary, this hypothesis leaves us with one conclusion, and that is that despite not looking in their top form in recent months, Dublin still look the best-equipped team to deal with the obstacles and challenges that the summer will bring.

Their experience of winning when it matters most will set them apart from the pretenders to their crown.

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