Wednesday 16 January 2019

Comment: Succession plan ensures Dubs can still reign without Connolly

Distance from 2011 team is now greater than ever as pace of personnel change quickens

Dublin’s ever-improving Eric Lowndes and last year’s U-21 winner Brian Howard in action against Galway’s Cathal Sweeney in the Allianz NFL Division 1 final. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Dublin’s ever-improving Eric Lowndes and last year’s U-21 winner Brian Howard in action against Galway’s Cathal Sweeney in the Allianz NFL Division 1 final. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

The Dublin team that finished Sunday's Allianz Division 1 football league final against Galway on Sunday is worth closer inspection.

Stephen Cluxton was, of course in goals, Mick Fitzsimons, Davy Byrne, Eric Lowndes, John Small, Jonny Cooper and Eoin Murchan loosely constituted their defence, Brian Fenton and Brian Howard were the most likely midfield pairing, if there was a 'pairing,' at that stage, while Shane Carthy, Con O'Callaghan, Colm Basquel, Ciaran Kilkenny and Dean Rock were a quintet up front rolling up their sleeves after the departure of Niall Scully on a second yellow card in the 46th minute.

Such is their strength and scope these days that it has become commonplace, in conversation and in print, to pick variations of Dublin teams - their strongest 15, north v south and, typically, a team that 'didn't play' but could be called upon. Fantasy stuff.

Just after 5.30 on Sunday evening, however, produced a team based on the reality that no matter what blocks are removed, the structure remains standing.

This team, the one that finished, was as far removed from the team that punched through the ceiling of repeated failure in 2011 for a first All-Ireland title in 16 years as any there has been in the years in between.

It's just over six-and-a-half years on from that last-gasp triumph over Kerry but as an illustration of that scope for change and the willingness of the manager to keep overseeing that process of change, the 14 players who nudged Dublin over the line for a fifth league title in six years was the perfect fit.

Just two of the 19 players used that day against Kerry finished the game on Sunday evening, Cluxton and Mick Fitzsimons.

James McCarthy and Michael Darragh Macauley, who started in 2011, were replaced, as was Philly McMahon, a substitute six-and-a-half years ago.

As the summer progresses the link with 2011 will grow stronger again with the restoration of this trio. Macauley cut a remote figure after last year's All-Ireland success, rooted to the bench for the last two games after a suspected cruciate tear earlier in the summer but he's been reinvigorated to some degree in this league campaign and now very much in pole position to partner Brian Fenton at midfield.

Cian O'Sullivan can also expect to fit back in again once his recovery from a dislocated shoulder goes according to plan.

But the point of highlighting the team that finished to draw a comparison with 2011 is to reinforce how much a new era, a new cycle of Dublin football, this is.

If there were overlaps between the teams of 2011 and 2013 and 2015, change has been most apparent over the last two seasons especially, even in terms of where the chief leadership axis lies.

The 'golden' generation of players that largely constituted those teams is receding all the time yet there are little signs of erosion of their powers.

When Rory O'Carroll signed off at the beginning of 2016 and we wondered how Dublin would ever cope without a specialist full-back like him.

Was it conceivable on his form throughout 2015 that Dublin could win their two subsequent All-Ireland finals (2016 replay and 2017) without Bernard Brogan starting?

Paul Flynn was very much a masthead for Pat Gilroy's team and by 2014 only Cluxton could have been deemed of greater importance. And was a post-Diarmuid Connolly era ever really a consideration?

That's the tricky one now. When it came to the crunch last September Gavin had to reach for Connolly at half-time when trouble against Mayo brewed, having left him out of the starting 15. With a return unlikely this summer his absence will provide their biggest conundrum when they hit those tight spots again.

Flynn is recovering from back surgery while Brogan's August target for a return from a cruciate ligament tear is ambitious. Whatever role they play, it's unlikely to be in the front line.

A feature of Gavin's tenure has been loyalty at a certain level, hence repeated appearances by players like Ciaran Reddin, Emmet Ó Conghaile and Conor McHugh who re-surface fleetingly at this time of the year without ever being fully supplanted.

But in terms of the starting 15 his unwillingness to stand still for too long remains evident in some of the big calls he has made.

This spring he used 34 players in the eight league games - John Small was the only player to start each time - and if team selection can be a guide to the summer he won't be looking past a half-forward line that won't have either Brian Howard and Niall Scully either side of Ciaran Kilkenny who has had his best league campaign and is out on his own with Fenton as the outfield commander-in-chief.

To some a draw against Galway in Salthill, a first Croke Park defeat to Monaghan a week later and then a struggle against Galway again in the league final hints at vulnerability but at no stage did they have their strongest team on duty, notwithstanding the improvements that Monaghan and Galway have made.

If there are potential chinks in the armoury, they are disciplinary. In five of the eight games they played Dublin finished with 14 men.

Scully was sent off for second yellow cards against Tyrone and Galway, Philly McMahon clocked up the same combination against Monaghan, and Eoghan O'Gara and Fitzsimons picked up straight red cards against Galway and Mayo respectively.

Dublin contested Fitzsimons' red card with some justification but as the most physical team around not every official is going to see collisions the same way.

Dublin will finish the decade as the dominant team. But the building blocks are being put in place for that dominance to stretch into the next decade too.

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