Sunday 25 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Gutsy Dubs deserve better

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‘If you took Stephen Cluxton off that Dublin team they'd be shy two All-Irelands.’ Photo: David Maher
‘If you took Stephen Cluxton off that Dublin team they'd be shy two All-Irelands.’ Photo: David Maher

Eamonn Sweeney

Why all this begrudgery towards Dublin? Ever since the final whistle blew at Croke Park this day last week there's been a steady whine in the background as various nitpickers set about trying to devalue the All-Ireland-winning campaign of Jim Gavin's team.

Apparently, the Dubs' victory is tarnished because they're a cynical team, because Joe McQuillan gave Cillian O'Connor wrong information about the amount of time left in the game, because they should have taken off Rory O'Carroll when he was concussed, because it was a bad final, because they should be winning it anyway because of their awesome underage dominance, because they have so many people to pick from, because they have home advantage at Croke Park and because, well, just because.

There has been a marked reluctance to concede that the current All-Ireland champions have proved over the course of the year to be an outstanding team. They didn't just win the league and championship double, they went through the season suffering just one defeat in 13 competitive games. Their league final was one of the finest of modern times, their All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry perhaps the greatest game of all time. All this was achieved by flaunting the conventional wisdom that negativity is the way to success in Gaelic football.

And if their performance against Mayo was not their best, there was still much to admire. Playing a team that had swept aside all opposition, the Dubs hung in there against the kind of first-half onslaught which had broken other teams before taking control in the second half. That they held on to their lead with only 13 fit players speaks volumes about the team's character.

Yet their reward for the scintillating football they produced all year and the fighting spirit they showed on Sunday is to have their bona fides questioned as attempts are made to put an asterisk beside this victory. OK, it wasn't a classic final. But how many of them are classics? This year's happened to be better than last year's when a weaker Mayo team handed Donegal two goals in the first five minutes and spent the day playing catch-up in a lacklustre game which didn't even have the virtue of suspense.

Yet there wasn't a word said about the shortcomings of that final or any implication that Donegal were anything other than a truly great team that had forever changed the way the game of football is played. Judging by last week's reaction, there is a world of difference between last year's 2-11 to 0-13 final and this year's 2-12 to 1-14 final. Well, it's obvious just from the scorelines, isn't it?

In fact, Dublin and Donegal had similar paths to glory. Donegal got there by beating Kerry by two points, Cork by two points and Mayo by four points. Dublin got there by beating Cork by five points, Kerry by seven points and Mayo by one point. The difference is that Dublin scored 6-46 in those three games while Donegal mustered just 3-39 because the Dubs played the kind of open attacking football which was supposed to be a thing of the past. Since the quarter-finals were introduced only Kerry in 2006 have scored more in their final three games.

Yet it's perhaps that very positivity which has led to the begrudgery of the last week. Experts who'd assured us ad nauseam that the Ulster/Donegal model was the only way to play the game didn't like to be proved wrong. So they sought to rescue themselves by pretending that deep down Dublin are really a negative team after all. Hence the enormous mileage being extracted from a couple of tackles by Kevin McMenamon and Dean Rock and the pretence that this revealed the true soul of the Dubs instead of being a panicky reaction by a team at the end of an arduous season.

What's the story with all this hand-wringing anyway? Is the phenomenon of players fouling other players unique to Gaelic football? If so, how come Anthony Nash ended up getting a penalty and two 21-yard frees in the hurling final against Clare? Because Clare defenders fouled Cork forwards who looked like they might score. Clare are not a cynical team. These things happen in team sport but only in Gaelic football are they hyped up to be some kind of existential threat by a pack of Holy Joes.

Poor old Jim Gavin. His basic problem is that he's neither a bullshitter nor a boaster. Jim McGuinness's willingness to don the messiah's mantle was much more to the media's liking. Pursuing petty gripes against Declan Bogue and Kevin Cassidy, entering the impossibly glamorous world of Scottish Premier League football or insisting that the entire Donegal club calendar be changed to suit his whim, Donegal Jim was the very model of a Celtic Tiger Man of Destiny. The Tiger is gone and the bankers and developers who originally created the MOD model are discredited but in sports journalism the notion that to be successful you need to act like a cross between Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh and Michael Douglas playing Gordon Gekko will never get old.

But football isn't actually The Apprentice and Dublin Jim just isn't like that. He sent his teams out to play good football, succeeded and seemed somewhat bemused to be hauled over the coals after the final. He has been short-changed by the suggestion that there is something inevitable about Dublin's victories given the county's 'awesome under-age strength'. Especially considering that Exhibit A is two All-Ireland under 21 football victories which Gavin steered the teams to as manager. Three out of the last ten Leinster minor football titles does not a powerhouse make. Not to mention that this year's under 21 campaigns resulted in Ciarán Kilkenny becoming perhaps the first Dublin player in history to be eliminated from the championships by Longford and Carlow in the same year. Nothing's been handed on a plate to Jim Gavin.

What he has going for him is a team with a lot of guts. So much guts that on Sunday, 13 Dublin players became the first footballers in history to win two All-Ireland finals by a single point. This may be a coincidence though it's worth noting that Jim Gavin won his All-Ireland medal by a point too. But it's worth celebrating. It's worth too celebrating the perennial competence of Stephen Cluxton. Minutes after the otherwise excellent Rob Hennelly had hesitated under a high ball and let Bernard Brogan score the match-turning goal, Cluxton came for the same kind of high ball and made it.

Late in the game he planted a free from a position where Hennelly and Cillian O'Connor had missed earlier. He does so much so right so often that we tend to just wave it away as Cluxton doing his thing. But if you took him off that Dublin team they'd be shy two All-Irelands.

It's worth celebrating Michael Darragh Macauley who, despite a running style which makes him look like he's trying to tackle himself, will be a worthy Footballer of the Year. And also Cian O'Sullivan, the epitome of an unsung hero, pressed into midfield service where he performed superbly and provided cameos like the pass for the goal against Cork and a storming run through the heart of a then rampant Kerry which almost resulted in one of the great solo goals of the year. To top it all, he did firefighting duty at centre half-back in the semi and corner-back in the final. The underestimation of O'Sullivan meant Dublin were predicted to lose midfield in their big three games, Instead they won it on each occasion.

Spare a thought too for the undervalued James McCarthy whose loping runs helped turn the tide when things got rocky against Kerry and Mayo. And for Bernard Brogan, right up there with Colm Cooper as the most skilful player we have, who in the final two games came good when he was needed.

Perhaps the ultimate example of how Dublin have changed in recent years came when Brogan scored his second goal. Because the player who cut through the Mayo defence was Denis Bastick, whose, ahem, unreconstructed attitude to the game made him something of a joke figure when he first appeared. Yet the new model Bastick was the man who had the vision to play the perfectly flighted pass to Brogan which pretty much sealed the deal for Dublin.

It's been a great year for football. If you can't see that I'm afraid there's no hope for you.

Sunday Independent

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