Colm O'Rourke: Dubs should follow template with plenty in reserve
Teams will mimic Donegal as long as they are successful
The band plays on. The dancers change from Sunday to Sunday but the core music remains the same. It may be a waltz, a tango, maybe even a foxtrot yet everyone tries the same moves. The game, like the music, takes on a universal shape. Matches resemble football from my juvenile days of over 40 years ago. Almost everybody chases around after the ball and nobody kicks it unless there is a free or a chance of a score.
It should make for poor entertainment.
And yet the public are not switched off. Attendances are good, as are TV viewing figures. Over 20,000 poured into Kingspan Breffni Park last Sunday to see Donegal against Cavan. A very short distance away in Carrick-on-Shannon, a huge crowd showed up for Leitrim and London. Those who went to Cavan could never have expected that the game was going to be anything but a continuous rolling maul and yet they came.
Naturally, All-Ireland champions are a big attraction, but maybe people have accepted football for what it is and even if the game has lost almost all of its traditional skills, there is still a deep respect for players who show bravery, commitment, loyalty, skill, sportsmanship and all the other qualities we admire in sportsmen of whatever code.
Otherwise the only explanation is that football followers are a demented species because there must have been less kicking of the ball last week than ever before. Strip out kick-outs, frees and sidelines and there was almost no kicking. Entertainment, whether it is cinema, theatre or pitch, means different things to different people, but everyone loves winning and Donegal are winners.
By most barometers, Down should have won: they had more possession and scoring chances but Donegal had Colm McFadden. He did not get the ball very often, and yet he made the difference. If he switched sides, the result would have been different.
It was like Richard III in the midst of battle who cried out, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse". His kingdom at that point depended on something as simple as a horse – and it did as he was unable to escape after losing his own charge and was soon cut down. James McCartan, the Down manager, must have felt like changing this to, "A forward, a forward, my kingdom for a forward".
With Conor Laverty and Mark Poland foraging earnestly but well away from the danger area, and Benny Coulter looking a shadow of his former self, Down needed one forward to turn the water into wine. He wore a different jersey and so long as Murphy, McBrearty and McFadden stay healthy, Donegal will take a whole lot of beating. And if Donegal keep winning then the style of football will become ever more defensive as most counties will feel that their only chance will be to do a Donegal on Donegal.
It is the same in all wars. The winners write the history.
Today the trench warfare moves to Croke Park. It is unlikely to be as intense or as low-scoring and Dublin in particular have been the flair team of both league and championship so far. Jim Gavin has given many of those he had at under 21 level their head and it has worked better than he could have imagined.
But these are only skirmishes. The big armies won't muster till the first weekend of August. Yet Johnny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion need all the game time they can get. The new Dublin team seems to operate on a policy of outscoring all opposition without the stifling defence of others. Or maybe the pace they show in turning blanket defence into attack makes them seem a bit more refreshing.
In many respects, Kieran McGeeney has acted similarly. The infusion of young blood from their Leinster under 21-winning team has changed the dynamic of his side.
For a few years the personnel did not change very much; now Paul Cribbin, Niall Kelly, Paddy Brophy and Daniel Flynn have given Kildare fresh impetus. Whether it is fortune favouring the brave or the fact that Kildare were just not good enough in their old form is debatable, but this younger side has a lot of potential.
However, when these sides met in the league Dublin simply destroyed Kildare in the second half and ran out winners by 2-20 to 2-7. That game was on March 10 and most of the players will be involved again today. Ollie Lyons is a loss to Kildare as they need pace at the back and he supplied the Formula One kind.
The other worry for teams meeting the Dubs is not just the starting 15, but the class they can inject from the bench. Kildare are building up a strong panel but it would be a serious leap of faith to see anything other than a Dublin win.
If most expect the Dublin-Kildare game to be the semi-final and final, it won't bother either Meath or Wexford unduly. They are on a different road with new managements in both camps and a Leinster final appearance would signal progress, even if it meant taking to the highway afterwards for the qualifiers.
These sides are passing each other in the league divisions for next year, Wexford on the way down from the second and Meath on the way up from the third.
However, Wexford recovered well in their first-round championship defeat of Louth in Drogheda and having watched the DVD of that game, it is clear that Wexford have no trouble scoring but leak a lot at the back.
That game ended 2-13 to 1-15 in their favour, but they got a lucky break for a goal when the ball rebounded off a post. Of course many would say that luck has nothing to do with these situations, a good forward is always chasing in just in case there is a rebound.
In many respects, the Meath victory over Wicklow in Aughrim was similar. Meath ran up 1-17, which is a championship match-winning score, but some of the 1-11 that was let in was a bit naive. And Louth, on all league form, are a much better side than Wicklow. Yet Meath are improving. It may be slow, but supporters better get used to small steps. This could be a five-year project if the same management want to stay that course, because what Meath need is a long period of quiet building.
Most of the advantages lie with Wexford in this game. They have been more successful over the last few years and have competed hard against Dublin. They have forwards too: Ciarán Lyng was brilliant against Louth and there is a lot of scoring power from Redmond Barry, PJ Banville and Adrian Flynn from wing-back while Ben Brosnan, despite his off days from frees in Croke Park, can kick them from out the country.
Meath are better for the inclusion of young players like Donal Keogan, Damian Carroll, Michael Newman and Paddy Gilsenan off the bench, while Eamon Wallace can cause havoc with his pace. He may have plenty to learn but he is getting there and will be better in time.
Of course, these need a bit of assistance from the older hands where Meath are a bit light. Kevin Reilly and Brian Menton are leaders and while Wexford may win this one, Meath are on the right path and the future is brighter.