Sunday 20 May 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Enough of tiresome Dub-begrudgery

‘Jim Gavin’s Dublin are a rebuke both to that era of Dublin football and to the negative philosophy which prevails today in too many other counties’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Jim Gavin’s Dublin are a rebuke both to that era of Dublin football and to the negative philosophy which prevails today in too many other counties’. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

There's only one reason I don't want Dublin to win today. It's because a victory for Jim Gavin's team will unleash a flood of apocalyptic rhetoric about the death of the football championship, the huge demographic and financial advantages enjoyed by the Dubs and the impossibility of anyone ever beating them again. I'm not sure if I can face another year of that.

This Dublin team are unique in that the better they do, the less credit they get for it. Should they win today there'll be a chorus of what Fr Noel Furlong described as "moaning Michaels" lamenting what this means for the game of football and the GAA in general. The way they go on it's as if the Dubs are the heirs to those infamous and invincible East German women's swimming squads, deep of voice and hairy of chest, from the 1970s. Only in this case the doping is supposed to be financial rather than hormonal.

Should Dublin win today, and chances are they will, there will be a chorus of "what else would you expect?" It's not fair, is it? Take the question of population advantage. Dublin have enjoyed this advantage for the entire history of the GAA, yet before Kerry basically handed them the 2011 final they had won just one All-Ireland in 26 years and were serially derided as chokers and losers.

It seems nonsensical to say that this demographic and financial advantage suddenly kicked in five years ago to an extent which makes it impossible for anyone to compete with the Dubs. Yet that's what we're asked to believe. The proponents of this idea have suggested that Dublin 'suddenly got it right' and used to point to an apparent dominance enjoyed by the county at underage level.

Yet this theory is less convincing than it seemed two years ago. That 'awesome underage strength' has yielded just one All-Ireland minor title in recent years. The Dubs can't even dominate Leinster, where Kildare have won three out of the last four. At All-Ireland level Kerry are bidding to become the first team since Cork in 1969 to win three titles in a row. I don't hear anyone suggesting that this presages an inevitable period of Kingdom dominance or asking that the county be split up to give everyone else a chance at underage level. But that's exactly what would happen were Dublin nearing a similar milestone.

Dublin have won three of the last seven All-Ireland under 21 titles, but this hardly constitutes a monopoly. It's no coincidence that those teams included many of the players from the current senior side and that two of them were managed by Jim Gavin. It is the coincidence of an outstanding manager with an excellent group of players, rather than money or population, which has made Dublin the team to beat.

My opinion is that the demographic advantage line is seriously overworked and that population size would probably only be absolutely decisive if football was played between teams of 100-a-side. There was, after all, excitable chat about the inevitability of Dublin taking over hurling a while back. No-one talks about that now.

Should Dublin win today it will give them a fourth All-Ireland title in six years. This would be impressive but hardly unprecedented. Kerry won four out of six between 2004 and 2009, three of their victories coming in laughably one-sided finals. Tyrone took three out of six between 2003 and 2008. Eras have their outstanding teams.

Dublin seem to get people's goat. Their dominance is portrayed as almost an existential threat to the football championship. Yet no such panic ensued when Kilkenny were winning nine out of 11 hurling titles between 2006 and 2015. If ever a championship was uncompetitive, the All-Ireland SHC of those years was, yet everyone seemed much more relaxed about it than they do about the prospect of Dublin putting back-to-back titles together, something they've failed to do so far.

One reason for this 'Dub-begrudgery' may be that every season begins with Dublin romping to a series of easy victories in their provincial championship against opposition who arrive with the white flag already unfurled. But this gives a misleading picture of Dublin's strength for the simple reason that the Leinster Championship is chronically weak. We're always told that Kerry have an easy time getting out of Munster yet at the moment the three next best teams in that province, Tipperary, Cork and Clare, would probably defeat the second best in Leinster. Which is, I don't know, Westmeath maybe?

Things get very much tighter for Dublin after their provincial canter ends. So far their three All-Irelands have been won by one point (twice) and three points. In fact they're the only side in football history to win two All-Irelands by a point. Mayo had chances to put them away in last year's semi-finals and so did Kerry in this year's. If this is inevitability, it's a very strange variety of it.

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, Dublin turn on the style today and give Mayo the kind of drubbing the Connacht side received from Kerry in 2004 and 2006. Chances are they'll then be criticised, as Michael McKillop has been in the Paralympics, for making a mockery of the thing by being too strong for the opposition. Win by a narrow margin and it'll be 'That wasn't so great considering all they have going for them.' Lose and they'll be derided as hyped and over-rated. Some pundits think Dublin can't lose today. But to a certain extent they can't win either.

The irony is that Dublin are the best thing to happen to Gaelic football in many years. And I say this as a long-time Dubosceptic. Under Paul Caffrey, Dublin were an unpleasant team, a strutting, swaggering outfit who proved the truth of the old adage about the courage of bullies by crumbling when faced with meaningful opposition.

Jim Gavin's Dublin are a rebuke both to that era of Dublin football and to the negative philosophy which prevails today in too many other counties. He has gone completely against the grain of the conventional wisdom which held that in the post-Jim McGuinness era the way to success was to employ blanket defence, sweepers and a generally cynical approach. We were told ad nauseam that football had changed completely as a game and that we might as well learn how to appreciate this thin dispiriting gruel because it was all we were going to get.

Yet though Gavin's Dublin are ultra-modern in terms of fitness and conditioning, there is something pleasingly retro about the way they play the game. They do not place large numbers of men behind the ball, they often leave defenders one on one against danger men and when they're attacking, regularly employ the long, direct ball, which is still the most difficult thing to defend in Gaelic football.

Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper have prospered under the responsibility given to them by Gavin and are able to play one on one better than anyone else in the game. Yet Dublin's commitment to adventure still means that there is always a chance of a decent score for a sufficiently brave and accomplished opposing forward line. Kerry showed that in the semi-final, as Donegal had showed in 2014.

Yet this year's semi-final also showed the advantages of Gavin's approach. Most teams would have been felled by the double blow of the goals poached by the Kingdom just before half-time. But the commitment to adventure also means that Dublin knew they could create enough scoring chances to get back into the game. A negative team trying to chase the game is in trouble because it's trying to do something unaccustomed. Dublin, on the other hand, are always, to a certain extent, chasing the game, no matter what the score is.

After the defeat by Donegal in 2014 there was much talk about how Gavin and his team would have to adopt a more defensive style from then on. There was an element of wishfulness about such speculation, as if by accepting the negative and pessimistic view of the game the Dubs would let everyone else off the hook. They didn't change and they probably never will.

This is important because what succeeds at inter-county level often trickles down to the clubs. When Kevin Heffernan played John Caffrey as a third midfielder in 1983, not only did many teams subsequently adopt the tactic, they usually did it with a man wearing the same number 13 as Caffrey. When Kerry prospered with Kieran Donaghy at full-forward, all over the country big defenders and midfielders found themselves being dragooned into a position on the edge of the square.

The worst thing about treating Dublin as a special case who win because of an unfair advantage rather than the way they play is that it blinds people to the very important lesson Jim Gavin has for football. Namely that positivity can be a much more successful strategy than negativity. In a sea of would-be Mourinhos he is Gaelic football's sole Guardiola.

Maybe Dublin will win today. Maybe they won't. But if they do it's time to give credit where credit is due. To paraphrase that great Gael Noel Coward "Don't let's be beastly to the Dubs."

What matters is not where they're from but where they're at.

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