Dubs in greatest need of league success
DUBLIN will head for the Armagh Athletic Grounds on Saturday night, conscious that their need to win the Allianz National Football League title is greater than for any of their seven Division 1 rivals.
Having reclaimed Croke Park as their base for 'home' league games and, with a confident sense that the momentum established throughout most of last year will increase, there's an expanding belief in Dublin that 2011 will be their best season for a long time.
Not that Dublin beginning a new campaign with high expectations is anything new, but the difference this time is that the fundamentals appear to be based on a really solid platform.
Remove the defeat caused by their inexplicable defensive implosion against Meath from the 2010 balance sheet and it makes for healthy reading for league and championship (played 13, won 10, lost 3).
It took them to within a point of Cork after losing their way late on in the All-Ireland semi-final, having earlier failed to reach the league final on the tightest of nods in a photo finish.
They won five of seven games to finish joint second with Cork, but missed out on a place in the final having lost the head-to-head clash.
For the first time since 1999 Dublin were in real contention for a place in the final after putting together a consistent campaign. And while it came up just short, it reminded the Dublin public of the times when they were regularly involved in knockout league action, which yielded titles regularly.
That was very much the case in the earlier years of Kevin Heffernan's reign in the 1970s (two titles, two defeats in finals) and again in 1986-93, during which they won three titles, and lost two finals and two semi-finals. After that, their league form dipped alarmingly and only revived in 1999, when they reached the final but lost to Cork.
Linking league and All-Ireland success is not a definitive science but to deny that there's any relationship is to ignore a stark reality. The core Dublin squad that won the 1995 All-Ireland title had won two league titles over the previous four years, while most Sam Maguire winners since then have also had a progressive association with the spring competition.
Kerry won league/All-Ireland doubles in 1997, 2004, '06 and '09; Tyrone won the double in 2003 and Cork did likewise last year. Other All-Ireland winners -- Meath (1996, '99), Galway (1998, 2001) and Armagh (2002) -- also had good records in the league, so it can hardly be a coincidence that September glories are frequently preceded by April joys.
That's why it's now so important for Dublin to at least reach the league final this year if they are to build on the promise they displayed throughout most of last season. The league programme is set up nicely for them, although they would have liked a 'home' tie in the first round.
However, after Saturday's away clash, they have four of their next five games in Croke Park and with a whole range of supporter-friendly initiatives in place to attract the public, Dublin can expect the "16th man" effect drifting in from Hill 16 and the various stands.
Returning to Croke Park is a masterstroke for Dublin on a number of fronts. Apart from playing a significant part in glamourising their league games, it re-establishes Croke Park as their 'home' ground, which could prove hugely beneficial later on.
It will also lead to demands from championship rivals that they are allowed to train in Croke Park on the basis that it's now Dublin's home ground, but presumably an accommodation can be reached.
The overall climate would appear to be very conducive to a Dublin surge this spring. That is, of course, unless they retreat into their insecure shells, something that has happened in the past -- quite often in seasons where they appeared all set to prosper.
They start the Division 1 programme as third favourites behind Kerry and Cork, and while they won't be at full strength for some time, the same applies to most of their rivals.
Dublin's new-look squad went into last year's league against an uncertain background after the inevitable clear-out which followed the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final mauling by Kerry.
This time, Dublin are far more stable but are also carrying much more pressure.
Failure to win the league -- or even reach the final -- wouldn't necessarily do irreparable damage to their championship prospects, but winning it would certainly help them.
Taking a national trophy in Croke Park in late April would be the best possible send-off for the championship for a squad where many were mere toddlers when the league title was last won 18 years ago.
It's a challenge they must embrace if they are convince themselves and the rest of the football world that the long wait for Sam Maguire's return is approaching an end.