Thursday 26 April 2018

Comment: Best of their era but Dubs would not have dominated in the noughties

Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello, Niall Scully, Ciaran Kilkenny, John Small and Mick Fitzsimons with Sam Maguire after their All-Ireland final victory over Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Mannion, Cormac Costello, Niall Scully, Ciaran Kilkenny, John Small and Mick Fitzsimons with Sam Maguire after their All-Ireland final victory over Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

The second greatest Gaelic football team of all time and, whisper it, maybe even the greatest? The narrative now is that only the Kerry corps of 1975-'86 stands between this Dublin squad and the number one ranking in the history of the game.

We owe it to the self-same history to insist on a little more care and consideration. The reputation and achievements of other teams deserve it.

The past is always in danger of being erased, especially in sport, where the addiction for new drama needs constant feeding. But there are really no excuses for such amnesia in this particular conversation because we only have to go back a decade to find not one but two teams who'd have beaten the current champions.

Last Sunday the Dubs nailed the three-in-a-row, and their fifth All-Ireland title in seven seasons. These stats alone are incontrovertible proof of their greatness. This debate is already over. They are a truly great team. But the greatest, or second greatest? Steady on there.

Let us transplant them back a decade and put them in against the Tyrone and Kerry teams of the 2000s. Would the Dubs have beaten them? Definitely. Would they be winning five in seven? Definitely not.

How quickly we forget. The Tyrone and Kerry teams of that decade delivered some of the most brilliant football we have ever seen. They were involved, together and separately, in some of the most sensational games ever played. They were stacked with Hall of Fame players and, in several cases, players who belong in the VIP suite of the Hall of Fame.

The Tyrone team of that era had one of the greatest forward lines ever assembled. Do we even need to name them? It seems that we do: Canavan, McGuigan, Mulligan, Dooher, Cavanagh and O'Neill. Kerry? Littered with all-time greats: Ó Sé T, Ó Sé M, Ó Sé D; Moynihan; Cooper; Donaghy; Declan O'Sullivan. Throw in the stellar supporting casts: McMenamin, Jordan, Gormley; Galvin, Tom O'Sullivan, Mike McCarthy among them.

On top of all that luxuriant talent and athletic power, both teams were pure championship animals. When the hammer came down they were ready for road. Watching those teams in that decade left one with a prevailing sense that they were creating their own epoch, that this was a special time in the game's evolution.

But last week, in the stampede to acclaim the most recent history-makers, it was like it had never happened. It felt as if that previous historic decade had been disappeared in a puff of smoke. Not for the first time, it left one wondering what is the point of it all, if it all can be forgotten so quickly.

So, summon to mind a few of those games from that period. Tyrone v Armagh three times in '05, Tyrone v Kerry in '05, Kerry v Dublin '07, Tyrone v Kerry '08, Kerry v Dublin '09. Kerry's demolition jobs on Mayo in '04 and '06 were fearsome demonstrations of their ambition and class.

It is difficult therefore to be persuaded that either Tyrone or Kerry at the peak of their powers would not have taken down this current all-conquering Dublin team, at least one time each - and maybe more.

And of course there was the seminal All-Ireland semi-final of '03 that launched their mutual fight for supremacy over the rest of the decade.

Dublin have not had to face an internecine battle of this intensity. Yes, they have had a great rivalry with Mayo - but Mayo have not necessarily been great rivals. They do not have the attacking class, the finishing power that actually would have finished Dublin at least once in their epic encounters over the last five seasons. Tyrone had it, Kerry had it, Mayo don't.

Another caveat: Dublin's dominance is taking place in a trough period. There is a slump in the provinces. This is a post-Ulster and post-Leinster landscape. Donegal's stunning coup over the Dubs in 2014 was the last hurrah for Ulster, at least temporarily. Leinster is feeble, with Meath marooned in the doldrums for years and Kildare, as ever, not to be trusted. Kerry's triumph in '14 masked the decline that was probably inevitable after the golden generation of the noughties, for all their brilliant efforts to improvise and compensate.

Kerry threw the kitchen sink at them in 2011 and 2013 and it was here that these Dublin players made their bones. They did not have the enormous reservoirs of pure confidence that they can call on now. But they withstood stomach-churning crises on both occasions.

It is impossible to quantify, but this Dublin team is perhaps mentally the strongest outfit ever to take the field. Mayo were chipping manfully at a granite wall last Sunday. The champions are superbly coached on the field, and equally well managed off it; it can only be so, given their implacable resistance to cracking under pressure.

They have broken new ground too in the sheer level of quality they can deploy from the bench. The Kerry and Tyrone sides of the noughties would not compare on this count. Substitutes traditionally were pale imitations of the players they were replacing. Dublin's aren't so much substitutes as executioners. This kind of artillery is unprecedented.

But in my opinion they'd have needed every ounce of it to survive unscathed against the two superpowers back then. On some days it would have been enough - on others, it wouldn't.

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