Friday 15 December 2017

Dublin's petulance may come back to bite them

A tempestuous league campaign hints at a deeper malaise, says John O'Brien

From the murk of spring, Morgan Treacy's lens captures a moment of beautiful clarity. It is the 40th minute of Dublin's rearranged National Football League fixture against Mayo in Castlebar.

Michael Duffy's right arm is pointed hard towards the sky. Paul Flynn, Dublin's substitute half-forward, is standing at 90 degrees, his head turned towards the referee, gaping in open-mouthed horror at the card Duffy is holding in his hand. The expression on Flynn's face is priceless.

Perhaps it isn't a stretch to consider it as a metaphor for Dublin's progress since the turn of the year. At times during the league, Pat Gilroy's team played good football, occasionally even approaching the dizzy heights of last summer. Overall, though, they seemed a touch hapless and directionless, as if unsure whether to approach games with the swagger of All-Ireland champions or the fear of being meaty prey for ambitious teams. "The hunted rather than the hunter," as former great Paul Curran puts it.

For sure, there were mitigating circumstances: the customary delayed hangover from the All-Ireland celebrations and the absence of the Brogan brothers, one the team's most charismatic and deadly forward, the other the reigning Footballer of the Year. Yet it is at such times, they say, that you learn profound things about yourself, that you hope to unearth a nugget or two, an insurance card to be played down the line on a nervy day when, for once, the old reliables have come up short.

So what did Dublin learn? Well, loads, but not all of it palatable or easily digested. They learned that the rigid organisation and sense of discipline so painstakingly instilled by Gilroy over the previous three years is brittle and especially vulnerable when faced with a fresh and sterner challenge. They learned how much tougher it would be to scale the summit a second time, a bracing lesson given how demanding it had been first time around.

Too often under pressure the core discipline broke down and the rap sheet grew. Flynn's red card against Mayo, the first of two Dublin dismissals that day. The red mist descending on Eamonn Fennell moments after coming on against Kerry in Croke Park. James McCarthy's red card in the first game against Mayo. Diarmuid Connolly's ugly off-the-ball challenge on Ciarán Fitzpatrick in the O'Byrne Cup in January for which he was fortunate to escape without punishment.

The list goes on. Connolly and Alan Brogan a touch lucky not to walk against Down in Newry. Bryan Cullen losing his temper in Portlaoise, earning a one-match suspension after being cited for a high tackle. "A real calm individual," Gilroy had said when appointing Cullen team captain before last year's championship. In the heat of a fractious encounter, with Laois snarling uncomfortably in their faces, Cullen's and Dublin's composure fell short of what it needed to be.

We shouldn't make more of this than is necessary. None of it suggests that Dublin have suddenly morphed into a dirty team or even one that strays dangerously close to the edge. In the likes of Connolly, Eoghan O'Gara and Ger Brennan they have players prone to the odd lapse in discipline -- what county doesn't? -- but needless challenges and acts of petulance became such a feature of their spring that it is hard not to diagnose a deeper malaise.

"There's no question that Dublin aren't a dirty team," says Curran. "Under Pat they've been incredibly disciplined. I just think it's all been a bit new to them. Teams seem to be coming out now to get closer to them and I think fellas couldn't cope with the extra attention. But that's going to happen even more in the championship so maintaining discipline is going to be the key. Pat will have addressed that over the past month or so."

Curran alludes to a critical issue here. The nature of Dublin's infractions during the league are less important in themselves than what they might ultimately lead to. It was noticeable that day in Castlebar, when their haul of cards included two reds and five yellows, that Gilroy was mature enough to concede a discipline problem, leaving the public complaints about provocation and fussy refereeing to his county board chairman, Andy Kettle.

In fairness, Kettle was only reflecting the mood of the ordinary Dublin supporter, exasperated by the procession of cards meted out to their players, but from such feelings of frustration and injustice full-blown siege mentalities have been known to bloom, the entire GAA world in cahoots to topple you from your perch. A pure and uncomplicated football team like Dublin simply doesn't need to be hurtling down that road.

If they are tempted, they might heed the warning from down south. Few in the modern game have honed the art of the siege mentality quite as adeptly as Jack O'Connor. Initially, when he had to overcome the indifference of his own public to prove himself as Kerry manager, it was a quality that served O'Connor well, but the point came when it had outlived its usefulness and became a crutch where Kerry always looked externally for their shortcomings when the real faults lay closer to home.

Not that Kerry were a dirty team either, but too many lapses in discipline tended to be glossed over or fancifully explained away by a nationwide GAA conspiracy against them. Would they have tumbled out of the 2010 All-Ireland championship had Tomás ó Sé and Paul Galvin not been suspended before the quarter-final. Debatable at least. On the airwaves the apparent inability of Kerry pundits to be critical of their own county men made it seem as if tolerance of indiscipline had seeped into their football culture.

Contrast that with Connolly's dismissal in the All-Ireland semi-final and his former colleague Ciarán Whelan's pointed reluctance to bat for the full-forward on that evening's Sunday Game. Whelan simply called it as he saw it and it didn't look good for Connolly. And when it was revealed earlier this year that O'Connor had cautioned his players about their tendency to argue with officials the thought occurred that if this was the first time the Kerry manager had done so, it wasn't before time.

How likely is it that discipline will become an issue for Dublin this summer? On balance, you'd say, more likely than not. How likely are they to cope in the event it does? Better than most, perhaps. It bodes well for Dublin's defence of their crown that not only does Gilroy have a strong panel to choose from -- augmented by a knot of hugely promising All Ireland under 21 winners -- but one where several places remain very much up for grabs.

In picking 12 of the team that started last year's All-Ireland final for today's Leinster opener against Louth, Gilroy has opted for loyalty but it isn't a quality that will necessarily define his summer. "Pat will be ruthless if he needs to be," says Curran. "If it's not to the same level as last year or if lads are not performing he'll change the personnel. He won't be afraid to bring in young players. You can be certain of that."

There isn't a day when Dublin would wish to field without Connolly, O'Gara, Brennan or the ever-maturing Michael Dara Mcauley but, apart from the Brogans as the league conclusively proved, nobody is indispensable and that isn't a bad position for Gilroy to find himself.

By the middle of August, the team on view will likely have evolved significantly from the one setting out in Croke Park today. A feature of Gilroy's time in charge: he has never been afraid of change.

And so they enter uncharted territory now. Up there to be shot down with all the pressure and scrutiny that entails. Sixteen years ago, they were defending All-Ireland champions too but, as Whelan pointed out last week, the parallels with 1996 are not all that compelling. Pat O'Neill had stepped down as manager of an ageing team that was peering over the edge of a cliff. Meath took them in the Leinster final and there was no second chance.

"We were disjointed that summer," remembers Curran. "We were over the hill. It's different this time. This is a young team and of last year's management they've only lost Mickey [Whelan]. And each side understands the other."

Back then, they faced Louth in their second game in Leinster and Louth gave them hell for a while, leading with seven minutes remaining only for Dublin's superior firepower to get them over the line.

Whatever happens today, the certainty is that another long summer stretches out before them, full of bumps and potholes they likely won't have previously encountered. How they and Gilroy cope will be fascinating to behold. A good manager takes a talented, under-performing team and guides them up the hill to glory.

A great one takes them a second time, when everybody wants their scalp, and repeats the feat.

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