Monday 19 August 2019

Dick Clerkin: 'Father Time looks Dubs' greatest threat as Gavin's deadly dozen reach veteran stage'


'In recent years, Gavin has done remarkably well balancing the gradual phase-out of these stalwarts, and the integration of new blood.' Photo: Sportsfile
'In recent years, Gavin has done remarkably well balancing the gradual phase-out of these stalwarts, and the integration of new blood.' Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

What do you think is the average age of the last 15 Footballers of the Year? Two years ago, Andy Moran struck a blow for the older generation when he took the award at the age of 33 but, even with that boosting the average, the typical age of the winner is 27.

The average age of the past 19 World Cup-winning panels since 1930 is around the same. It is generally acknowledged, and supported by many similar sporting metrics, that peak athletic performance in men is reached between the ages of 26-28. Thereafter, a natural physiological decline combined with the demands of adult life begin to take their toll.

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Get to the point, I hear you say. In 2011, Dublin won the first of their six All Irelands in the eight years since. Ten players involved in that breakthrough team are still part of Jim Gavin's five-in-a-row-chasing panel: Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, Mick Fitzsimons, Cian O'Sullivan, James McCarthy, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara.

Throw in Diarmuid Connolly and Rory O'Carroll who, following Dublin's underwhelming league campaign, are again under the spotlight as potential recalls, and Dublin's deadly dozen is complete. Their collective achievement is eye-watering - 68 Celtic Crosses, 28 All-Stars and two Players of the Year. Yet by the time this year's All-Ireland final comes around, this group of players will have a combined average age of 33.

The commentary around Dublin's strength in depth frequently fails to recognise the ageing profile of a large swath of Jim Gavin's panel. Anxious not to miss out on a historic five-in-a-row, it is understandable that many of them are not rushing into retirement.

In recent years, Gavin has done remarkably well balancing the gradual phase-out of these stalwarts, and the integration of new blood. The longer these players stay on, however, the more difficult a task it becomes.

In my latter years with Monaghan I was always conscious of not over-staying my welcome. Regardless of the experience you may bring to a panel, it can easily be overlooked in place of being seen as a 'bed-blocker' for further emerging talent waiting to develop.

When the day came against Longford in a 2016 qualifier, that I wasn't considered as an option to come off the bench, whether I agreed or not at the time, it was the last sign I needed to finally call it a day.

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The peak for this group of players was arguably the 2013-2015 seasons when Flynn, Brogan, Connolly and Macauley et al were in their pomp. On the occasional days additional firepower was required, O'Gara and McManamon would provide the cavalry assistance. Cluxton conducted a mobile defensive unit, that had a ruthless blend of pace and aggression.

In 2014, Monaghan faced Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final in what would prove to be my last championship start in a Monaghan jersey. Just short of my 33rd birthday, I was faced with the unenviable task of marshalling the reigning Footballer of the year Macauley. While I stuck to the task for 60 minutes, with 10 minutes to go the tank was empty and I waved the white flag to the line.

Dublin ran out comfortable winners, and I remember thinking walking off the pitch, that they were the most complete and physically imposing team I had ever played against. That they would inexplicably lose their next game to Donegal doesn't take away from how good that group of players were. And at a time when the competition was arguably of a much higher level than it has been over the past few seasons.

Many of Dublin's 'Deadly Dozen' from that team have been more than content with little or no regular 'big-match' game-time in recent seasons. In any other county they would have likely moved on by now. The mouth-watering proposition of being part of history is simply too enticing. You can't blame them.

As I have written before, even allowing for Dublin's slight dip in form, in all likelihood their season, and path to immortality, rests with two games this year. An All-Ireland semi-final and final.

Two games that Jim Gavin needs his panel, a blend of youth and experience, to once again swat down the challenger of the day.

The challengers are coming strong however with Tyrone, Kerry and Mayo on an upward curve, with young legs invigorating their championship hopes. Monaghan, Donegal and Galway are equally positioned to have a big say in this year's championship.

In the winter of your career, your body becomes unpredictable. Some days, the legs just don't do what you want, even if all the preparation and diet is correct. You need those few more breaths to recover, one extra half second to turn. These are the realities of an ageing body, that are difficult to accept and predict.

In the white heat of championship these small margins make all the difference. Even allowing for his core of fabulous young talent in Brian Fenton, Jack McCaffrey, Brian Howard, Ciarán Kilkenny etc, Gavin is still going to rely on a large number of his 30-somethings in August and September.

That they can still produce the level of performance, that has seen them become some of the most decorated players in the game's history, in the winter of their careers remains to be seen.

Form is temporary, class is permanent… but age is simply unavoidable.

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