Thursday 22 February 2018

Colm Keys: One golden Dublin generation is beginning to blend into another

Generations being merged seamlessly as champions strike out for the future

Diarmuid Connolly comes off the bench to replace Con O’Callaghan in the latter stages of Dublin’s victory against Tyrone. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly comes off the bench to replace Con O’Callaghan in the latter stages of Dublin’s victory against Tyrone. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Colm keys

When Paddy Andrews was being replaced by Kevin McManamon in the 45th minute of Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final with Tyrone, he made sure that he wasn't going to hang about.

It wasn't that he couldn't wait to get off and wasn't enjoying it out there - how could he not - but in sprinting off the pitch he was conveying a message, not just to his manager Jim Gavin who was standing on the sideline as he flashed past, but to everyone in the place that there was a lot more left in him.

Dublin have far more sophisticated ways of measuring depleted energy levels of course but the optics were important. The job was done yet Andrews wasn't in need of refuelling.

In an environment like Dublin's, where there is always someone ready to displace you, every little inch and image counts.

When it had ended two former Footballers of the Year remained rooted to their seats in the Hogan Stand, Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley both unused substitutes.

Arguably the most talented footballer of his generation, Diarmuid Connolly, saw only a handful of minutes.

Dublin's Paddy Andrews. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin's Paddy Andrews. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Pause and think about all that.

Macauley has had cruciate ligament trouble all summer and Connolly is just back after a three-month suspension but still, it is hard to countenance that any of this trio did not feature in the first 20 for a match of this stature.

Probable

It is quite probable that, for an All-Ireland final with Mayo that will be much more physical and aggressive, they'll be bumped up the pecking order.

But Dublin football, it seems, is moving faster than anyone can keep track of.

In the same way that Kilkenny luminaries like Tommy Walsh and Jackie Tyrrell ended their days rooted to those same seats that Brogan and Macauley found themselves in last Sunday, reputation and sentiment are counting for nothing.

The train leaves the station at the appointed time - it's up to you to be on board. No matter who you are.

Their stunning dismantling of Tyrone's defensive ramparts in the opening 25 minutes on Sunday and the cast that brought it about have framed the realisation for everyone that this is no longer a once-in-a-generation team extracting as much out of their time here as they can.

The idea that when Brogan, Connolly, Macauley, Paul Flynn, to name but a few, began to recede the window of opportunity would open up for the rest has been misplaced.

One golden generation is beginning to blend into another.

That is, unfortunately for the chasing pack not just in their own province but across the country, a mirage.

When Tyrone sit down over the next few weeks to digest the fall-out from Sunday's defeat where do they begin to think about ways they can improve when they have given so much of themselves already. What do they need to do that they are not doing already?

That conversation will be taking place in every other dressing-room over the next few months and for many, deep down, the point of it all will be challenged.

For Tyrone, clearly a change of style is necessary but that may only be tantamount to losing a different way.

This was a team that ran up 6-77 in four previous championship games, putting a cumulative distance of 46 points between themselves and those they conquered.

If Tyrone are scratching their heads about ways to improve, what must Derry, Donegal, Down and Armagh now be thinking?

The departed Sean Cavanagh stood outside the Tyrone dressing-room after Sunday's match and expressed some sympathy for those who he was leaving behind him.

Cavanagh knows how far he has pushed his body and his life to keep pace with the inter-county game in the latter end of his career. He thought he had it right, he thought the team had it right. Until Dublin did what they did in such explosive fashion and, after 89 championship games, left him wondering how could a team get so far ahead.

The words he chose couldn't convey that as much as the look on his face did, one that had just witnessed some apocalyptic vision of a future he felt dispirited about.

All those Saturday evenings under lights in February and March in recent years had lulled them into a false sense of security that the system they had was the perfect antidote to explosive attacking football.

But Dublin are equally happy playing a long game too, as in a game that demands patience. Unlike 2014, they didn't force it when there was daylight between the teams.

Instead, their perpetual movement forced Tyrone to shift points of defence too often. And when they defended themselves everyone had a role. Are there more definitive images than Paul Mannion chasing back into his own half to strip Cathal McCarron and Padraig Hamspey of possession? Three years ago could you imagine that happening?

The scale of choice at Dublin football's disposal was perhaps best reflected last January when a squad shorn of the 30-plus players that delivered a second successive All-Ireland title the previous October won the O'Byrne Cup.

A poor reflection on Leinster football but after 10 and 12-point wins over Monaghan and Tyrone in their last two games is Ulster football any better when set against the prevailing standard at the top?

The main auditions for next month are focused primarily on who can finish the game, not start it.

Historically, Gavin places faith in his team selections from game to game - 19 starters this year and 20 in the previous two years - so who can influence the game beyond that is where the main jostling for positions takes place.

It is an incredible dynamic for a team to have.

For the first championship game against Carlow at the beginning of June they used six substitutes - Brogan, Shane Carthy, Mark Schutte, David Byrne, Conor McHugh and Denis Bastick - none of whom subsequently started a game. On Sunday they used six more but not one of the six used in the Carlow game featured. In the case of Bastick, Schutte and McHugh, they weren't even part of the 26.

Trampled

In some respects, there are similarities with what they have done this year and what the Kilkenny hurlers did in their three-in-a-row year, 2008, when they trampled over every opponent to win four games by a cumulative 69-point total, an average of just over 17 points per game. Dublin's margins are comparative, 75 points over five games.

They've had many peaks but Sunday jutted out higher than all the rest for the control they showed. If anything they gave Tyrone too much respect.

All they are leaving for the rest is the warmth of nostalgia and all they have left to do as a team is win an All-Ireland final with real conviction.

That said, they face a team in three weeks' time that has continually given them the most problems and who can sap the energy from opposition legs with the ferocity of their contact, a team who know best what conditions to expect and has refused, thus far, to go on bended knee at this stage of the season.

In the short term, Mayo provide the only beacon of hope now that the rest simply are not chasing the long shadows being cast over the game.

Irish Independent

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