Ciarán Whelan: 'The biggest challenge facing Jim Gavin's men may come from within'
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You blink and the championship has commenced all over again. Maybe it’s the helter-skelter of modern life or maybe it’s a sign of moving on in age, but it seems like just a short while ago that Stephen Cluxton was lifting the Sam Maguire!
Tomorrow, the Dubs commence their quest for an historic All-Ireland five-in-a-row against Louth, a feat that has never been achieved before at senior level in either football or hurling.
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Four on the spin has been achieved by Wexford footballers between 1915 and 1919, and the princes of the pigskin from down south (that’s Kerry by the way) in both 1929 to ‘33 and again more recently in the 1979-1982 era.
Kilkenny’s hurlers won four Liam MacCarthys in succession between 2006 and 2009, but like both Wexford and Kerry, fell at the fifth fence.
Jim Gavin’s team, over the past few years, have shown remarkable mental resolve, it will be required more so than ever this summer.
Many felt winning back-to-back All-Irelands was a near impossibility, but not alone have Dublin achieved that, they added a third, then a fourth and now stand on the threshold of immortality.
Dublin have developed a remarkable winning culture in the current unit. You can talk about tactics, key personnel and various other components, but ultimately for me it’s that mental fortitude which is the greatest strength of this panel.
It’s not unlike what the All Blacks rugby side had in the past, an aura about them and that ability to win the big games going down the stretch when teams would show signs of buckling under pressure.
This year’s NFL was something of a different experience for these Dublin footballers as lost three games and did not reach the Division 1 final.
Counties, none more so than Tyrone, exposed weaknesses in Dublin’s defence, but the biggest challenge Gavin’s men will face is arguably from within.
If they are in any way mentally fatigued or if they fail to fully spark to life, they will be vulnerable.
However, the Leinster Championship (beginning with tomorrow night’s quarter-final against Louth in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise) presents them with the opportunity to regroup and iron out the creases that surfaced in the league.
Issues in the full-back line have reared their head in the past — like last summer against Laois and Galway — so Dublin might need to rethink their defensive formation.
Cian O’Sullivan, presuming his hamstring is fully up to the rigours of an entire summer, could be deployed in a deeper role, closer to his full-back line to negate the aerial threat and give greater protection to the Dublin goal.
Rory O’Carroll is back in the fold, but realistically we don’t know yet if he is genuinely at the ‘pitch of it’.
Doing fine in a couple of club games in April is great, but it’s only in the furnace of a proper championship test that we will get the answers.
No doubt he is a great addition to the Dublin panel with his experience, big-game temperament and man-marking skills, and he could have a major bearing on how this summer shapes up.
Two players Dublin will need to spark to life are James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey. Not just in terms of their defensive play, but in how critical they are to Dublin’s attacking play.
Both are major catalysts for Dublin’s most potent plays, their direct running into the scoring zone and then laying off possession, or the play opening up in front of them are critical to Gavin’s game-plan.
When this doesn’t happen, Dublin can be overly methodical in their offensive play with the top teams now better at stalling the Dubs’ first phase of attack.To go all the way this summer, Dublin will need to attack with greater pace, more frequently and with greater aggression than they did last year.
Another aspect of Dublin’s play that will have had Jim Gavin, Declan Darcy, Shane O’Hanlon, Paul Clarke and Jason Sherlock thinking is the make-up of their impact sub squadron.
Not much new blood has emerged this year so a question hangs over the ability of certain players to perform that role to the same heroic effect they have in the past.
A comparison of the scoring return from the bench from the last two league campaigns would add something to this theory.
In this year’s league Dublin’s subs tallied 0-8 (including one free and one mark by Dean Rock against Mayo) while in their seven games last year, they scored 1-14 (including four frees).
Looking forward specifically to tomorrow evening’s game, it is a very difficult prospect for the Wee County.
They will be emboldened by the nature of their victory over Wexford in their opening game. They came from three points in arrears with ten minutes to go to win by five, as they kicked eight points without reply.
Ryan Burns was their super-sub par excellence.
Louth manager Wayne Kierans will set his side up to ‘stay in the game’ for as long as possible and they will have the shutters down to try to prevent an early Dublin goal.
In the past when counties have lost heavily to Dublin in the early rounds of Leinster, it has delivered a very demoralising blow which is a disaster ahead of the qualifiers.
Looking at the other game in Portlaoise, Meath and Carlow could provide us with a very interesting duel.
The Royals impressed in the early part of their NFL Division 2 final against Donegal, with Mikey Newman causing lots or problems prior to the introduction of gnarly Donegal defender Neil McGee.
Meath’s display against Offaly in the last round raised questions about their current status in terms of the challenger role to Dublin in the province.
They were bullied at times by the Faithful County and John Maughan’s men also outplayed them for sustained periods in the second half.
Andy McEntee’s men will want to address those shortcomings but will face a defensive Carlow team who could make it awkward for them.
Carlow could present a more united front, having lost their appeal to the suspensions of midfielder Brendan Murphy as well as manager Turlough O’Brien and coach Stephen Poacher.
That said, I still expect Meath to advance.