Dominant Dubs at the gates of seventh heaven
The real story in Leinster, says Robbie Kelleher, is not that Dublin are homing in on a record-breaking provincial seven-in-a-row tomorrow, but that their rivals have offered such feeble resistance over the last few years.
"That's the big issue. We don't know how Kildare will do on Sunday, but over the past few years Dublin have run through Leinster pretty much as they liked," he said.
He speaks as a man who played on the last Dublin team that came so close to securing the seven-in-a-row in 1980. They were going well too as they approached the last fence, needing one more good jump to take them safely home and into the record books.
Instead, they clattered it and were overtaken on the run-in by an Offaly team that had tracked them doggedly for three years.
27 July 1980: Offaly 1-10 Dublin 1-8, Croke Park. Att: 50,276.
After winning six successive provincial titles Dublin's Leinster reign was over and, with no back-door reprieve for beaten teams, so too was their season.
A year later, they were very fortunate (John O'Leary made a wonderful save from Pat Baker late on) to beat Wicklow by two points before losing the semi-final to Laois in what was the last championship game for such famous names as Kelleher, Bobby Doyle, Bernard Brogan and John McCarthy. An unforgettable era had ended with 'Heffo's Heroes' delivering three All-Irelands, six Leinster titles and two leagues.
The present generation have already accumulated more titles (four All-Irelands, six Leinsters and four Allianz Leagues) and are one win from beating the provincial record, currently jointly- held by their predecessors in 1974-79, Kildare 1926-31 and Wexford 1913-18.
They go into tomorrow's game as 1/14 favourites but then Heffo's men were well fancied too before the 1980 final, a game that marked O'Leary's championship debut. The circumstances of his selection were, by today's norms, unbelievable. He wasn't even on the Dublin panel but, on returning home on a Friday evening from Wexford, where he worked in a bank, he was asked to report for training in Parnell Park on the following day, the eve of the Leinster final.
O'Leary, who had just turned 19, was told after the session to turn up at Croke Park the following day, which he duly did. Kevin Heffernan said nothing until he was handing out the jerseys, when he tossed him the No 1, remarking casually, "you're in today, John".
Instructions? They were brief and to the point. "Stop the shots, drive your kick-outs as far as you can and keep talking to your defence," Heffernan told him.
And so began the career of one of the greatest goalkeepers in GAA history. It lasted 17 years, during which he played 70 successive championship games.
In 1980, O'Leary represented the future in a transitioning Dublin squad. The Leinster record beckoned in the final and when a Doyle goal helped Dublin to a 1-5 to 0-2 half-time lead, it looked as if they would achieve it.
All changed in a second-half when Offaly, who had been expertly nurtured by Eugene McGee into believing their time had come, out-scored Dublin by 1-8 to 0-3.
"Matt Connor destroyed us. Offaly were the coming team and we had come off two years when we lost All-Ireland finals heavily to Kerry," said Kelleher.
Therein rests an essential difference between that Dublin squad and Jim Gavin's history chasers. It's difficult to know precisely at what point of their cycle the current group is but by comparison with their 1980 equivalents, they are certainly at a much earlier stage.
For all that, there's no guarantee that the good times will continue to roll.
"There's a clear distinction between Dublin in Leinster and Dublin against the top teams from around the country. They have been completely dominant in Leinster but not outside.
"If you take the four All-Irelands they won, they were all very close calls. Kerry are still trying to figure out how they lost in 2011. Mayo had enough chances to win the 2013 and last year's finals, as well as the 2015 semi-final replay.
"Fair play to Dublin, they came through them all. I suppose the big difference between them and the team of my day is that we had much better opposition in Leinster," said Kelleher.
He believes that the next test for the Dublin squad rests in the leadership succession stakes.
With Paul Flynn in the latter stages of his career, Michael Darragh Macauley injured and Diarmuid Connolly suspended, Kelleher says that others have to step forward as leaders if Dublin are to maintain full momentum.
"These guys are real leaders, the sort you need when you're three points down with 15 minutes left or when you're not just playing well as a team and you need to dig it out. Are the younger players capable of taking on that responsibility?
"It's not just about being a good footballer but also being a good leader, someone who makes things happen when it's most needed. To some degree, this Dublin squad is at a crossroads.
"Some very talented young fellas are coming in but have they the leadership qualities of a Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh Macauley or Diarmuid Connolly? You'll only know the answer when they're put on the spot. That certainly hasn't been happening in Leinster.
"It's hard to know how good Kildare are and whether they'll put it up to Dublin, but on the basis of what we've seen over the last few years, they have a fair bit of ground to make up," he said.
Kelleher's point that Dublin operate in two worlds (one inside weak Leinster, the other against the best from elsewhere) is well made.
Dublin apart, no Leinster county has reached the All-Ireland semi-final for the last five years. Kildare (2015) were the only county to reach the quarter-finals in the last four years.
Meath's last appearance in the quarter-final was in 2010. Even then, it has to come with an asterisk since they got there with an undeserved Leinster final win over Louth, secured with an illegal finish for Joe Sheridan's winning goal.
Dublin were Leinster's only representatives in Division 1 this year and while they will be joined by Kildare next season, seven counties will be in Divisions 3 and 4. That includes Laois, who were relegated to Division 4 this year. Their dismal championship performances against Kildare and Clare suggest that life in the basement next spring will be tougher than they might think.
Yet it's only five years ago that Laois ran Dublin to three points in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
"It's hard to understand what has happened to counties like Laois. Whatever it is, it's not good for them or for Leinster where apart from Dublin the standard has been dire," said Kelleher.