Eamonn Sweeney: Fallible Dubs give chasing pack reasons to keep faith
Dublin are just not the same team this year. Saturday’s defeat by Tyrone in Croke Park was the kind of loss they simply haven’t suffered before under Jim Gavin. Something is not quite right with the All-Ireland champions.
As that famous Jackeen Oscar Wilde nearly said, to lose one league match may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness. Lose three and things have clearly changed.
This is the team whose 36-match unbeaten run between March 2015 and May 2017 set an all-time record. Losing three of their first six matches propels them into uncharted territory. That’s the same number they lost in the group stages of the previous four national leagues combined.
It’s seven years since Dublin lost this many league games. We can dispute the significance of their current run but it certainly doesn’t represent business as usual.
The long unbeaten run was important for Dublin because it burnished the aura of invincibility surrounding them. In several of those 36 matches they looked on the verge of defeat only to sneak a narrow win or rescue a draw.
That ability to edge close finishes proved crucial late in the championship. The popular perception of the Dubs may be of a remorseless machine riding roughshod over everyone, but of their six All-Ireland titles in the last eight years four have been won by a single point.
It’s an unprecedented achievement. The Kerry team often compared with Gavin’s Dublin won their eight finals by an average of almost eight points. Brian Cody’s Kilkenny had the same average margin to spare in their 11 victories. Dublin have been kings of the cliff hanger. For them to start losing close matches, in whatever competition, goes against the grain
When Tyrone’s Niall Sludden was sent off with 20 minutes left and his side just two points up you expected Dublin to pull clear. But the late flourish did not materialise. Like Monaghan and Kerry before them, Tyrone held out.
That they did so more comfortably than either Monaghan or Kerry may be the most worrying thing for Gavin. The opening day defeat in Clones was excused on the grounds that Dublin were just easing themselves back into action, the loss in Tralee camouflaged by praise of a classic match. Yet on Saturday Dublin gave their worst performance yet, something which scarcely suggests a team inexorably journeying towards top form.
Gavin certainly didn’t sound like he thinks everything is going to plan when declaring, “That certainly will give the management team a lot to reflect on and certainly give the Dublin players a lot to reflect on because that just isn’t good enough. We’re on target in terms of fitness. Certainly, fitness didn’t lose us that game today, just a better quality team.” The Dubs boss is no player of mind games and his current dissatisfaction is obvious.
Defeat by Tyrone means that for the first time since 2012 Dublin will not play in the league final. The decider has provided a useful yardstick for them in the past. Two years ago, for example, after Dean Rock slotted the long range free which beat Mayo in the All-Ireland final, he spoke of how his last-gasp miss from a similar distance in the league equivalent made him raise his standards.
A league final against Kerry would have provided a serious examination by Dublin’s most dangerous rivals. In its absence Dublin won’t have a proper test till the Super 8s begin in July. The usual Leinster Championship walkovers won’t tell Gavin much about his team. Unaddressed doubts will accompany them into the latter stages of the championship.
The current hiccups can perhaps be explained by the concept of entropy which says that all systems run out of energy over time. It’s not just neutrals who’ve found prolonged Dublin dominance wearying. The attendance at last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, a drop of almost 30,000 from 2017, suggested even Dublin fans are tiring of it.
There were moments during last year’s final when the team itself seemed to have trouble maintaining interest. At no stage did they attain the heights needed to defeat Mayo the previous year. The drop in vigour and invention has continued in the league campaign.
Is anyone strong enough to take advantage of metropolitan decline? The Mayo team of 2017 would have been or the Kerry side of 2015 and those counties remain the biggest dangers to the five in a row. Yet Kerry are inexperienced and look short of quality backs while Mayo are aging and look short of quality forwards. A Galway team willing to take a leaf out of Corofin’s adventurous book might also provide a meaningful challenge and their performance in Tyrone next week, with a final place at stake, will be informative.
Dublin do have problems. Their full-back line is in rag order with Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly the latest inside forwards made to look like world beaters. Their key attackers have lacked consistency and the veterans on the bench are increasingly subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Yet Gavin’s team are still the most likely champions. It was said of Jack Nicholson that when he was in the mood he was the best actor in Hollywood, and when he wasn’t in the mood he knew he’d be the best actor in Hollywood if he was in the mood. That’s how it is with Dublin.
The only team who can really stop Dublin are Dublin. They probably won’t. But right now their challengers can see an unexpected glimmer of light.
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